“holy Joe” is someone who oozes religious sentimentality, religious
sentimentality devoid of worldly wisdom and earthly sense.The holy Joe, with his head in the clouds, may be mildly amusing,
even laughable, but there’s nothing about him that we want for
The “holier-than-thou” isn’t merely unattractive; she’s
regards herself as spiritually superior.Worse, she advertises herself as spiritually superior. Worst of
all, she expects to be recognized as spiritually superior.While the “holy Joe” may be somewhat amusing, the
“holier-than-thou” is out-and-out repulsive.
A “holy roller” is something else again.The “holy roller” is someone whose religion fizzes up into an
emotional binge.This binge,
like any binge, involves loss of self-control and a public display that
most people find pitiable and repugnant in equal measure.
It would seem that the word “holy” keeps bad company.Yet “holy” is a most important word in the Christian
vocabulary.It is one of the
most frequently used words in scripture.While Presbyterians argued fiercely, 450 years ago, over
predestination, in fact the “predestination” word group occurs
approximately 15 times in scripture.The “holy”, “holiness” word group, however, occurs
approximately 830 times in scripture.We use it constantly in hymns and prayers and lessons. We speak
of “Holy Communion” and “Holy Scripture” and “Holy
congregation sings the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”, or one like it.We refer to the Holy Spirit in every service.
Then what do we mean when we say “holy”?What’s the holiness of God?This matter is crucial to me, for I wince every time I hear
God’s name used carelessly.“Oh
my God, it’s begun to rain just when I was going to hang out the
sake swing the bat” someone shouts as another Blue Jay hitter is
called out on a called third strike.I wince whenever I hear God’s name used thoughtlessly.I feel like a man whose wife has been belittled, her name
sneered at and her reputation dragged through the mud.Why do I feel like this?
I feel like this because nothing looms larger with me than the
holiness of God.God’s
holiness is bound up with who God is and therefore with what I’m
trying to do as a minister and even with who I am as a person.Having said this much, however, I still haven’t told you
what’s holy about God or what’s supposed to be holy about us or even
what the word means.
I don’t think that my telling you would be the most helpful way
of approaching the topic.It
would be better if we examined what’s associated with the word, for
then an impression of God’s holiness would be stamped upon us forever.
(i) – Let’s
start with worship.One Sunday, John, exiled to the
, sent there to rot by a hostile Roman government, began to worship when
he – when he what?He
couldn’t say at the time.A
few hours later he was able to write something down.When I saw him”, John penned in the last book of the bible,
“I fell at his feet as one dead.”Nine hundred years before John, Isaiah was at worship in the
temple, the service no different from any other service, when he found
whole earth is full of God’s glory”, he cried out.At this moment he didn’t chatter, wasn’t distracted by
something extraneous going on in the service, didn’t comment on the
preacher’s smoothness or lack of it.He was overwhelmed.
Worship isn’t a matter of tossing off a hymn or two prayers and
reading and address added.Worship
is finding ourselves taken out of ourselves as we are overcome by the
One whose worthiness startles us.Worship
points to the holiness of God and gives us a clue to it.
else associated with holiness is awe.People are awestruck when they come upon a beauty more beautiful
than they can imagine; when they are visited with a love more tender,
patient, persistent than they can dream of; when they are pardoned with
a forgiveness so free and full as to overflow the word.The person who has been awestruck by any aspect of God has a clue
to God’s holiness.
associated with holiness is fear.Not merely awe this time; rather, awe with something added.All biblical faith begins in the fear of the Lord.What is it?It’s
adoration, reverence, obeisance, homage, humility; at least it’s 98%
this.And the other 2%?Pure fear, sheer fear.The
2%, sheer fear, keeps everything else honest.It keeps our adoration and reverence from becoming presumptuous,
or stale, or mindless.Let’s
remember that the Jesus whom we call “gentle, meek and mild”; he
said to his followers, “Don’t fear people who can merely beat you
up; you fear HIM who can destroy you utterly.” Of course we are to
love God.But don’t give
me the line a woman gave me at the door of the church one Sunday early
in my ministry: “Victor, I don’t fear God; I love him.”John Calvin insisted that we don’t genuinely love God,
profoundly love God, unless we fear him.
associated with God’s holiness is God’s
above us.He isn’t an
extension of us or a projection of us.He is uniquely God, exalted, transcendent.Through the prophet Isaiah God insists, “My thoughts are not
your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways.”He isn’t our errand boy; doesn’t implement our agendas;
won’t be co-opted to our self-important schemes.
A crusty atheist, veteran of the World War I, used to tell me
that during the Great War Anglican bishops blessed aircraft as they
rolled off assembly lines, while a few miles away Lutheran bishops
blessed anti-aircraft guns designed to shoot them down.“Now”, the crusty old fellow would say with a glint in his
eye, “wasn’t that an awkward predicament for the Almighty to be
in?”No, it wasn’t
awkward for God at all.It
was heartbreaking for him, but not awkward, since his thoughts aren’t
our thoughts or our ways his ways.We
don’t have him on the end of our string.God’s loftiness is a clue to his holiness.
we add up the clues, we have more than a little insight concerning
holiness is his unique Godness.God’s
holiness is that which renders God entirely distinct from his creation,
entirely independent of his creation, entirely independent of us.God isn’t the noblest element in humankind.God isn’t another word for our profoundest aspirations.He is God, he alone is God, and he will remain God whether anyone
knows him or not, acknowledges him or not, loves him or not.Kierkegaard gathered it up pithily when he spoke of “the
infinite qualitative difference” between God and us.
Earlier in the sermon I said that God’s unique Godness, his
holiness, has ever so much to do with my vocation, the huge
gravitational “pull” in my life.It has ever so much to do with what moves me and motivates me,
and therefore with what I am always trying to do in my ministry.I have spoke frequently here of my summons to the ministry.I never wanted to be a minister.I went to university to become a lawyer, fell in love with
philosophy, and decided to become a professor of philosophy.And so I tried to suppress the vocation I knew I had had since I
was 14 years old.By the
time I was 23 years old I was at a crossroads in my life, the crisis
upon me no little crisis.I
knew that either I was going to obey the God who was hounding me or I
was going to defy him disobediently and suffer for it.I surrendered.I
finished up my work in philosophy and moved over to theology.A short while earlier my parents had given me a book as a
graduation gift.In it they
had written a verse from the book of Daniel: “Those who are wise shall
shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to
righteousness like the stars for ever and ever.”
What does God’s holiness, God’s Godness mean to me?It means, among other things, that if I ever turn my back on the
summons I have received, I’m finished.Finished in Schomberg?Finished
with the ordained ministry elsewhere?More than that.FINISHED.
What does God’s Godness mean for you?How is it all related to you?
(i) – First
of all, the apostle Paul speaks of the holy
calling with which all
Christians are called to faith in Jesus Christ.The call is holy just because its whence and wither are God.The call is holy in that it’s a call from
God uniquely and it’s a call to God
Recently a Via Rail train conductor retired after 30-odd years of
working on passenger trains.When
asked what single statement gathered up his work for 30 years the
conductor replied, “I have spent my entire working life helping people
To be sure, it’s the task of the church, the total ministry of
the church, to “help people get home.” At the same time, we must
always be aware that the church’s ministry is that of a megaphone: we
are merely amplifying the voice of God who sounds that summons which
comes from him and calls people to him.If our calling is from God and to God; if it originates in God,
sounds forth and gathers up men and women with it, and finally returns
and returns them to God, then
the call wherewith we are called to faith is holy.
The holy calling by which God brings us home to him is heard in
the voice of Jesus his Son as the Master invites us to become and remain
should note, isn’t a static matter.We don’t become disciples and then “remain” disciples in
the sense of standing still: “I am now a disciple”.Discipleship means following.Our Lord’s invitation is always to follow: “Follow me.”He uses a verb tense that means “Keep on following.”Since our Lord is always out in front of us, when he says
“Follow me” he plainly means “Come to me; keep on coming.”In other words, the holy call by which you and I are summoned to
him is a call sounded relentlessly, daily.As we do follow, come, respond, we shall find ourselves living
ever more intimately with him, learning ever more from him, and rooting
ourselves ever more profoundly in him.Our faith in him is confirmed day by day.
– Yet we are
not merely confirmed in faith.We
are also conformed in faith, conformed to his mind and heart and will.In other words, our holy calling issues in holy conduct, as the
apostle Paul reminds us.
Paul speaks of holy conduct in terms of clothing.We are to “clothe” ourselves with compassion, kindness,
humility, patience, and meekness, that peculiar display of strength that
is exercised through gentleness.Yet
the apostle knows too that we can appear patient with people whom we
secretly view with hostility.We
can posture kindness (or apparent kindness) as a way of manipulating
them.We can display
meekness (strength exercised through gentleness) because strength
exercised through force would get us attacked.For this reason, when he speaks of the clothing with which
Christians are to clothe themselves he adds, “And above all these,
clothe yourselves with love, for love binds everything together in
perfect harmony.” (Col. 3:12-14)He
knows that love prevents patience from degenerating into indifference;
love prevents meekness from becoming manipulative.Love is the preservative of every other item of clothing the
Christian wears.Love, he
says, is also what keeps our “outfit” from clashing; love keeps our
clothing colour-coordinated, harmonized.
Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner we came to know two decades ago
through the movie Chariots of Fire;
Liddell was anything but a gifted speaker.He admitted as much himself.No one remembers anything he ever said.But when the missionaries with whom he worked in
were captured by the Japanese and interned in the Japanese-run prison
, his fellow-missionaries subsequently said they would never forget him.His kindness, his patience (genuine patience); a man with the
smallest ego and the largest heart; his self-forgetfulness – and above
all (can you guess what’s he remembered for above all else?) his
ceaseless cheerfulness under unspeakably trying conditions.All this the people interned with him said they’d never forget.Years later a fellow prisoner who survived wrote up the prison
camp episode.He said that
the most noteworthy aspect of Eric Liddell during this trying time was
his unfailing good humour.
We mustn’t think that Eric Liddell had a chance to be dramatic
while we have none.There
was nothing dramatic about his situation.He lived among people who were anxious, weary, nervous,
short-tempered, some hostile, and some treacherous.In other words, he lived where we all live.It was in the midst of the most undistinguished ordinariness that
his holy calling issued in holy conduct.
calling, holy conduct; lastly, Holy Spirit.If you are puzzled as to what to understand by “the Holy
Spirit”, always think in terms of effectiveness.The Spirit is the power or effectiveness of all that we apprehend
in Jesus.Jesus acts in the
power of the Spirit.He
rolls back evil in the power of the Spirit.He undoes paralysis and death in the power of the Spirit.When he speaks, something always happens just because he speaks
in the power of the Spirit.“Spirit”
means effectiveness or power, and the Spirit is holy in that what this
power effects is of God.
I wasn’t in Schomberg very long before I informed the session
that I simply could not say the words “Holy Ghost.”“Ghost” is an old English word derived from the German word
“Geist”.Most of you
have never heard of “Geist”.You
haven’t missed a thing, and we shall say no more about the German
word.All of you have
heard of “ghost”.In
modern English “ghost” refers to something nobody believes to exist,
something nobody has ever come upon; something devoid of all reality and
therefore not a “something” at all but rather a “no-thing”,
nothing.The reason I
can’t say “Holy Ghost” is that I see no point in saying “Holy
nothing”.In fact, I
believe God forbids me to say “Holy nothing”.
So far from being nothing, the Holy Spirit is everything where
effectiveness is concerned.Without
the Holy Spirit, the sermon is one person’s opinion on a religious
topic.With the Spirit, the
sermon is a human utterance that God adopts and renders the occasion of his
speaking to us, and this in a way that is both unmistakable and
the Holy Spirit the communion service is pointless tokenism, food and
drink insufficient to nourish a chickadee.With the Holy Spirit, the communion service becomes the
ever-renewed embrace of the crucified himself.
the Holy Spirit our worship is of the same order as the cheering at a
football game.With the Holy
Spirit our worship is a public exclamation of God’s worthiness; and
such worship, scripture reminds us, delights God.
the Holy Spirit the congregation is a social group of greater or less
cohesion, doing more or less good work, providing a social outlet for
people of like interest.With
the Holy Spirit the congregation is rendered the body, hands and feet of
Christ, whereby his work is done in the world.
the Holy Spirit the Christian life is a moral “grind” that soon
becomes easy to give up.With
the Holy Spirit the Christian life is a counter-cultural adventure
rendered effective by God, and appointed to end in triumph and glory.
one wants to be or be regarded as a holy Joe a holy roller or
holier-than-thou.But we do
want to be those who have been startled at the holiness of God.As a result we want to be those who live in the company of Jesus
Christ inasmuch as he has called us to him with a holy calling.We want our intimacy with him to issue in holy conduct as we
clothe ourselves in the clothing that befits Christ’s people at all
times.We want to be steeped
in the Holy Spirit, for we crave in all aspects of the Christian faith
that invigoration and effectiveness which God alone can supply.