Holy, How?

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Holiness

“Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

“Be holy.”

The Bible speaks profoundly and frequently about the holiness of God. The book of Leviticus alone spends ten whole chapters talking about holiness (17-26). In fact, when you take the Bible as a whole, I suspect holiness may be the best supported attribute of God. In other words, if you could only name one thing about God, you could be pretty confident in responding “God is holy.”

But holiness (as a concept) is a bit ethereal as well. What is holiness? What does it look like? And (looking to texts like Leviticus 19:2 and 1Peter 1:15-16), how do we fulfill God’s command to embody holiness as well?

On the surface (which is often unfortunately as much as we care to investigate), holiness seems to have something to do with purity: clean and unclean. If you’re still in Leviticus, let your eyes flip around a couple pages in either direction, and I suspect you’ll land on some instruction about sexuality (18:6ff), not consuming rare steak (19:26), not allowing anyone with physical deformities in church (21:17ff), and not to wear cotton/poly blends (19:19).

There are diverse reasons for these issues of “purity.” Some seem to be lightyears ahead of their time and address realities of germs and genetics and other things that the ancient Israelites knew nothing about. Others seem to be purely symbolic—the Israelites are to be different than those around them simply because God is different than the gods other peoples worshipped.

But purity is never the point, in and of itself. Not really. God is the point. “Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

And besides, when we mistakenly equate holiness with purity, we reduce holiness to something we do NOT do.

We don’t have sex with our grandchildren (Lev 18:10).

We don’t eat shellfish (Lev 11:11-12).

We don’t offer child sacrifices (Lev 20:2).

We don’t cheat people out of their wages (Lev 19:13).

Now don’t you get me wrong: These are good rules. I like these rules. I think the world is a better place when we follow these rules…… (OK, maybe the one about shellfish is wrong—but the rest of them!!!).

But God does not instruct the Israelites by saying “Don’t do the things that I don’t do!” No! God says, “Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

Holiness isn’t something you DON’T, it’s something you DO.
“Do these things,” God says, “because I do these things.”
“Be this way,” God says, “because I am this way.”

So if we are commanded (in both Old and New Testaments) to “Be holy!”, how do we do that? What does that look like?

In the tradition of the preachers of old, I’ve got three points to help us get to the bottom of that precise question.

1. God is holy

We must acknowledge—first and foremost—that God is holy.

Pastor Tom Tate reminds us that God’s holiness is multidimensional. He says: “God is holy. God is set apart from everyone and everything else. God is different. God is independent. However, God also chooses to be with us (Immanuel) and to live among us (incarnation)” (Feasting on the Word, 196).

The holiness of God is emphasized over and over throughout the Old Testament, and particularly in Leviticus and the prophets. We read (like in Isaiah 43:3) God say: “For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” We encounter in the Psalms and other places testimonies of God’s holy name: “For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name” (Ps 33:21).

Holiness is (as I already suggested) the defining characteristic of God in the Bible. If we piece all of that together, we discover that holiness is a kind of ethic—a kind of standard for action that God commits to. God is holy because what God does, God does in a certain kind of way.

So to begin with, we must acknowledge that holiness involves being like God.

2. God intends us to be holy too.

We, as the people of God, are invited to be that way too.

“Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2)

“But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1Peter 1:15)

How many times in how many ways do our scriptures reach out to us—implore us!—to be like the God we worship, to act like the Christ we follow, to imitate and reflect our Head—the Word of God, with God in the beginning, incarnate and with us in Jesus the Christ, and continually present with us through the abiding of the Holy Spirit.

Holiness is something that God is, and holiness is something that we are to be too.

3. Love.

That’s great, Pastor, but you still haven’t answered your own question: What do I do!!!

This—maybe even more than everything else—is the part that matters. You know and profess that God is holy. You recognize and affirm that God (through the Bible) calls us to holiness too. I’ve suggested that holiness is a kind of ethic—a way of operating in the world. So here we go……

What is holiness? Holiness is love lived out.

Maybe that definition surprises you. But let’s look (for instance) in between the verses of our reading: Leviticus 19:9-10. Remember, this chapter began with the instruction to be holy, and then proceeds to show what that looks like. Here it is:

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

Being holy means we are sometimes inefficient. But not in the ways we are usually inefficient. Being holy means our inefficiencies provide for the needs of others. Love is holiness lived out.

Keep reading (vv.11-12):

Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another. Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the Lord.

More good rules, right? And the heart of these rules too lies in (1) the nature of God, and (2) embodying that holiness in the world. Why don’t we steal, lie, and so on? It’s because is contrary to the ethic of holiness to which God calls us. It is contrary to the love and respect God expects us to show one another. Love is holiness lived out.

The rest of this section of scripture proceeds in a like manner. Don’t mistreat a neighbor. Don’t tie up someone’s wages in a bunch of legal mumbo-jumbo. Don’t let cultural bias get in the way of legal justice. Don’t spread lies and tell slanderous stories about other people.

It’s all right here. And it’s not really about what we “don’t” do so much as the overarching ethic of holiness we are called to live out in our lives. Love is holiness lived out.

And it culminates at the end of v.18: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

In fact, the author so wants to ensure you get his point that it is repeated again at the end of this chapter that tells us how to “be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” At the end of v.34, we read again “You are to love him in the same way as you love yourself.”

Love is holiness lived out.

Passionate Leviticus

We sometimes get this mistaken notion that Leviticus is this dry, boring book. And I suppose I will freely acknowledge that parts of it are dry. But we have in chapters 17-26 (over a third of the entire book!) a rather passionate plea for an ethic of holiness that brings provision, protection, and even forgiveness to this world. These chapters support a high view of human dignity and worth that defies discrimination and demonization.

God (in these chapters) calls us outside of ourselves.

These chapters call us to God. To be like God. To be holy, as God is holy. To live out the ethic of love that God has been living out since the beginning of creation.

God is set apart. Love sets us apart.

God is different. Love proves us to be different.

God is independent. Love displays our independence from the powers and pressures and cycles of violence in this world.

God is also Immanuel—God with us. And when we love others as God loves us, then we too bring the presence of God into their lives.

And God is incarnate—en-fleshed—in Jesus the Christ. No wonder—No wonder!—Jesus too emphasizes these verses from Leviticus as a key to eternal life (Luke 10:25-28). In our pursuit to live out holiness through love, we embody—(incarnate)—the riches of God’s love amidst the poverty of spirit that plagues this world.

Love is holiness lived out.

“Be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.”

Under the Influence

Philippians 4:1-9

You Are What You Eat

You know, when I was 18, it seemed I could eat whatever I wanted, however much I wanted, whenever I wanted. My gut was iron. My metabolism ran at warp speed. That……was then……

Now, I don’t feel so good after I eat that huge pile of chili-cheese dogs with jalapeños and cole slaw. My energy vanishes, I get irritable, and my body tells me it is not happy.

I’ve started paying more attention to how I feel after I eat certain things. And I’ve noticed a pattern:

When I eat processed food or when I overeat, I feel bad.

When I eat real, actual food (like fruits and vegetables and fresh meats), I feel good.

What I put in my body dramatically affects how I feel and how my body and mind performs. Maybe that’s what is meant by that old adage: “You are what you eat.”

Friendly Influences

But what you put into your life involves a lot more than just what we eat.

I had a best friend growing up. His family knew my family, and his house was only a couple blocks away. For a kid in my family, when I was growing up, that meant an extra measure of freedom. I can’t really share what happened in his life, but in adolescence he gradually turned to anger, drugs, and violence. We’d been friends for so long, I couldn’t imagine not being friends.

But still, he developed into someone who was not a good influence, something that was brought to my attention more times than I could count—and certainly more times than I ended up listening.

Eventually though—by the prompting of our Holy God—I began distancing myself from all that. I didn’t want to, but I recognized my life was heading in a direction I didn’t want to go. My friend and I didn’t have a fight or anything; we just started hanging out less and less. Our friendship kind of petered off into nothing.

But it was and is a small town. Everyone knows everyone’s business. So I also know that, of the four or five in our group of friends back then, I am the only one without a criminal record. Three have done time. One (I heard) was locked away for manslaughter. Another’s brain has been permanently messed up from drugs.

I look at them and I say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And I am grateful for the divine prompting to remove these unhealthy influences from my life, even as I grieve their own brokenness.

That which we put into our lives, is that which we get out of our lives.

What is sown is also reaped 

It’s harvest time, of course. And in the few days before the recent storms moved in, all the farmers were out in their fields, furiously harvesting what they could before the skies opened up, the fields became saturated, and that nervous waiting game began of having ready crops but not being able to bring them in.

It is the time of reaping, and a time when all farmers hope in that ancient adage: “What is sown is also reaped.” They have laboriously planted and diligently tended good seed in the hopes of a good harvest.

You know, a lot of people think this adage of sowing and reaping comes from the Bible. It is in the Bible, in Galatians 6:7, but the apostle Paul is clearly quoting an already-known adage or proverb here. It’s origins are lost to history. But just as we do today, the biblical writers heard truth in it, and as we know, all truth comes from God.

“Whatever a person sows, that shall he also reap.”

Svengoolie

But it’s not just our stomachs, our lives, or our gardens that work like this. Our minds operate on the same principle.

There is a show called Svengoolie on a local TV channel out of Chicago. I think you’d have to call it a comedy-horror show. It’s a show that plays old horror movies, especially the old black-and-white monster movies. But it’s hosted by a character (called “Svengoolie”) who makes jokes about the movies and other things.

It’s not a show I remember my parents allowing us to watch, but as another adage says: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” So when staying over at friends’ or relatives’ houses, I’d convince them to turn the show on, laughing and being frightened over and over.

And what do you think would happen when I stayed up late and watched movies about monsters and vampires and mummies and death and spooky things?

Quite expectedly, I had dreams about monsters and vampires and mummies and death and spooky things: nightmares, I believe we call them.

What I put into my mind is the same thing that I got out of it.

Philippians

Now the apostle Paul (quite tragically) never had the opportunity to know of Svengoolie, but he sure could have predicted my bad dreams. Paul sees this truth. He knows it well. What we feed into our minds will come out in our lives.

He says in Philippians 4:8:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

I’m going to read that verse again, and I want to encourage you to listen to it from another translation (The VOICE):

“Finally, brothers and sisters, fill your minds with truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy.”

I don’t know what bad stuff they were dwelling on back then. But I do know it’s hard to be part of our culture right now without feeding your mind on dissension, violence, adultery, ignorance, and lies. They comprise our news. They comprise our politics. They comprise our TV shows and our movies.

If this is what we put into our heads, should we really be so surprised when our lives are full of these things too?

If we fill our minds with violence, division, adultery, ignorance, and lies, then those things will certainly characterize our lives.

Why?

Because you are what you eat.
What you put into your life is what you get out of it.
What is sown is also reaped.
What we put into our minds will come out in our lives.

Too many of us perform some unhealthy substitutions to Paul’s list.

We substitute volume,
for truth.

We value 15 minutes of fame,
above a lifetime of being noble.

We replace being right,
with more intense rhetoric.

Popular (to us),
is much preferred to purity

That which is sexual,
is valued far more than what is lovely or beautiful.

We’re much more interested in learning of some celebrity’s fall from grace,
than we are in hearing of anything admirable.

We’d rather be entertained by stupidity,
than challenged by excellence.

But remember, Christians. Remember and be warned:

You are what you eat.
What you put into your life is what you get out of it.
What is sown is also reaped.
What we put into our minds will come out in our lives.

When we consume these substitutes, we give our souls heartburn and cause our own distress and destruction.

And so Paul reminds us: Listen. Fill your minds with the good things of God. “Put it into practice,” Paul says in v.9, “And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:9b).

Knowing Christ

Philippians 3:4b-14

Credentials

Do you know what this is? (SHOW HOSPITAL CREDENTIALS)

How about this one? Do you know what it is? (SHOW MINISTER’S COUNCIL CARD)

These are just a couple of the credentials I have, and I am proud of my credentials. I worked hard for them, and they communicate an important part of who I am and who I hope to become.

Paul’s Credentials

The apostle Paul, in our scripture lesson today, is talking about credentials as well. As he writes, Christians still see themselves as Jews first and Christians second. And apparently, there have been some preachers come to town who flout their credentials to convince the Philippians to follow their teachings instead of those of Paul.

So Paul throws his own credentials out there. And if you were making up a fake resume for a Jewish teacher in the first century, you could probably come no closer to the ideal than what Paul himself lived. His Jewish credentials were impeccable.

And yet……

All these credentials (Paul says) don’t mean a thing—not where it matters. More than that, though: Paul uses hyperbole—exaggeration—to show that these credentials (when looked at rightly) are practically something disgusting, unwanted, and perhaps even a hinderance.

The old King James Version tries to politely put it in this way (in v.8): I “do count them but dung.” Paul is so intent on making his point that he uses what in my house might be called a “wordy dird.” He actually lapses into what amounts to Greek profanity to try to demonstrate how little value these credentials are in terms of things eternal.

But these same kind of credentials are the things that we in churches frequently hold up as the ideal. If you were to describe for me a “good Christian,” I suspect you’d say things like:

  • prays a lot
  • reads the Bible every day
  • never misses Sunday worship
  • teaches Sunday School
  • is a deacon or serves on a church board
  • is “at the church whenever the doors are open”

Am I wrong? I suspect not.

These are great things, but they should not be held up as our “Christian credentials.” Our church attendance, for example, is the same kinds of credential that Paul describes as “dung.”

We’ve got a perspective problem. We are valuing the wrong things.

Pastoral Search Committee

It reminds me of something I came across a while ago (adapted from here). Someone humorously penned a pastoral search committee report as though they had reviewed a number of Bible personalities as candidates for the senior pastor position.

Pastoral Search Committee Report

Noah: He has 120 years of preaching experience, but no converts.

Moses: He stutters; and his former congregation says he loses his temper over trivial things.

David: He is a questionable moral example. He might have been considered for minister of music had it not been for significant transgressions of sexual misconduct and a murder conviction.

Hosea: His family life is in a shambles. Divorced, and remarried to a prostitute.

Amos: Has no formal training or experience whatsoever.

Peter: Has a bad temper, and was heard to have even denied Christ publicly.

Paul: We found him to lack tact. He is too harsh, and he preaches far too long.

Timothy: He has potential, but is much too young for the position.

Jesus: He tends to offend church members with his preaching, even offending the search committee with his pointed questions. His advocacy of socialist policies, combined with the kind of company he keeps makes him far too controversial for consideration.

So, our choice is:

Judas: He seemed to be very practical, co-operative, good with money, cares for the poor, and dresses well. We all agreed that he is just the man we are looking for to fill the vacancy as our Senior Pastor.
(adapted from http://www.joke-archives.com/spirit/pastorsearch.html)

It’s funny, but there’s some truth there. We’ve got a perspective problem.

The Right Credentials

These verses penned by Paul to the Philippians can help us reorient our perspective, should we allow the Holy Spirit to so work in us.

What Paul is after—the kind of credential that has real value—is the kind of righteous that comes from knowing Christ. Listen to verses 9-11 from another translation (The Voice, slightly adapted):

I want to be found belonging to Him, not clinging to my own righteousness based on the law, but actively relying on the faithfulness of Christ. This is true righteousness, supplied by God, acquired by faith. I want to know Him. I want to experience the power of His resurrection and join in His suffering, shaped by His death, so that I may arrive safely at the resurrection from the dead.

Having the right credentials centers around one thing and one thing only: knowing Christ.

Knowing Christ

Now, just to be clear, Paul is not talking about “knowing Christ” as merely “accepting Christ as your Lord and savior.” He is talking about a deep kind of knowing that comes from nurturing relationship. He’s talking about the kind of knowing that comes about by walking so fully in the footsteps of Jesus that you suffer and are persecuted, just as with Jesus himself.

Is that the kind of relationship you have with Christ? Or maybe I could put it differently:

Imagine you woke up this morning and discovered you were out of coffee. (Yeah, I know.) Do you long for Jesus the way you long for your daily jolt of caffeine?

Do you know—really know—Christ?

Or imagine you sit down to watch your favorite TV show. You’ve been looking forward to the “startling conclusion of last week’s broadcast.” You’ve popped the popcorn, walked the dog, silenced the phones—all to ensure an uninterrupted viewing. It’s time—the show comes on……and it’s a rerun. (“NOOOoooooo!!!”) Do you miss Jesus like you miss your favorite TV show?

Do you feel his absence like when you forget your cell phone at home?

Do you know—really know—Christ?

No New Problem

This isn’t a new problem, you know. It seems to me that we’ve looked at this credentialing thing wrong for most of human history.

Way back in Isaiah 58, the prophet addresses this perspective problem by reexamining the religious tradition of fasting. In verses 5-7, God (through Isaiah) says:

What kind of a fast do I choose? Is a true fast simply for making a person feel miserable and woeful?

Is it about how you bow your head (like a bent reed), how you dress (in sackcloth), and where you sit (in a bed of ashes)?

Is this what you call a fast, a day the LORD finds good and proper?

No, what I want in a fast is this:
to liberate those tied down and held back by injustice,
to lighten the load of those heavily burdened,
to free the oppressed and shatter every type of oppression.

A fast involves sharing your food with people who have none,
giving those who are homeless a space in your home,
Giving clothes to those who need them,
and not neglecting your own family.

If we know—truly know—God, that is the kind of religion we will practice. Those are the actions that flow from the right kind of credentials. That is life lived with a proper perspective–God’s perspective.

In case we missed it in Isaiah, here’s what the prophet Micah has to say about focusing on the wrong kind of credentials (6:6-8):

What should I bring into the presence of the LORD
to pay homage to the God Most High?

Should I come into His presence with burnt offerings,
with year-old calves to sacrifice?

Would the LORD be pleased by thousands of sacrificial rams,
by ten thousand rivers of olive oil?

Should I offer my oldest son for my wrongdoing,
the child of my body to cover the sins of my life?

No. He has told you, mortals, what is good.

What else does the LORD ask of you
but to live justly
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your True God?

Then there’s that story Jesus tells—the one about two different pray-ers? (paraphrased from Luke 18:10-14)

One—the one with impeccable religious credentials—prays: God, how I thank you that I am not like other people—crooks, cheaters, the sexually immoral—like that guy over there! I do more than required, I faithfully pay my tithes.

But “over there” in the corner is that other guy, who probably didn’t even notice he was being pointed at and slandered with the accusations of sin. He was too busy praying to God, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Jesus assures his hearers that it is the second man—and not the first—who is justified before God.

Jesus also tries to turn this credentialing thing on its head by showing how things are valued differently in the Kingdom of God. In Matthew 5 (vv.3-10), at the very beginning of what we call the Sermon on the Mount, we read about these topsy-turvy values of God’s Kingdom. There, we learn that the right credentials—the ones that demonstrate we truly know Christ—they involve poverty of spirit, grieving sin, meekness, having a passion for righteousness, mercy, single-minded devotion to God, and advocacy for peace and the victims of persecution.

You know, that actually sounds quite a lot like Paul’s desire to know Christ in our Scripture Lesson: “I want to experience the power of His resurrection and join in His suffering, shaped by His death.”

Knowing Christ. Really knowing Christ. Genuinely identifying with Christ. Now that’s something to be proud of.

So in the spirit of the apostle Paul in Philippians 3, Let us also:

Let’s throw everything aside—that we may gain Christ.

Let’s be found belonging to Him, not clinging to our own sense of righteousness.

Let’s actively rely on the faithfulness of Christ instead of our own faithlessness.

Let’s desire Christ’s resurrection to be manifest in our lives—here and now!—even if it involves suffering.

Let us know Christ, and continue in our hope (with the apostle Paul) that we may arrive safely at the resurrection of the dead.

To God be the glory, and the power, and the praise. Amen.

A Story of God

Earlier this week, I was in one of the neighboring “big cities” making some hospital visits. I’d stopped and grabbed lunch at a quickie mexican joint and was walking back to my car. There, on the ground near the driver’s door, was a folded piece of paper—white computer paper, folded up exactly the way I fold up notes I write and stick in my pockets.

While I didn’t remember having such a note in my pocket, I picked it up and unfolded it. It was a shopping list (is there anything more sad than a lost shopping list?), written by and escaped from some poor soul who would soon become aggrevated when he realized he would be working off memory alone.

Intending to recycle it when I had the chance, I placed this rogue list in the console of my car, and continued my day.

List

Today has not had a great start. In my home is an infant that doesn’t sleep well. There were some massive thunderstorms that blew through last night. I was running late (I HATE running late). When I finally got out of the house and arrived at the church, I reached in the back seat to grab my bag (containing Bible, computer, tablet, etc.). But my bag was not there. NOT THERE. In my haste to depart, I had managed to leave behind the single most important thing.

Back in the car I go. Back to home again. There’s my wife, puzzled look on her face. There’s my bag, sitting on the recliner near the door where I left it. There’s my kids, excited I’m home so early (oh, to be again so oblivious to the passage of time!).

Hugs and kisses all around, and more than one sad face. Back in the car I go. Back to church again. Round and round and round I go, where I stop no one knows.

I’m thinking of my day. The appointments I have. The small groups I have to lead. The sermon that needs preparing for the upcoming Sunday.

What’s that? The sermon?

There’s a moment’s grace. An idea. An insight. A connection. A plan. I can see it all, at least in broad strokes.

Must. Be. PRESERVED.

Having stopped at a stop sign, I allow my eyes to dart around the car for anything—ANYTHYING—within reach that I can jot some notes on.

The list. The sad, lost, rogue list. Right THERE. What I needed, where I needed it.

The list—sad no more. But suddenly a provision. A met need. A peculiar and divine coincidence of happenstance and divine action.

God is with me. I give thanks.