Throughout our readings this morning we hear the "echo" of God's voice down through the ages. His voice to His People:
"You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy!" "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Did you hear the echo? At the end of the Old Testament reading, at the end of the Gospel reading. Spelled out in our Old Testament and Psalm as well as the letter from Paul to the Corinthians. Spelled out in terms of holy living.
Holiness has always been a most difficult subject for God's people. It is like the "impossible dream." Except this is a dream that God has in His mind - not so much in ours. In ours it can become a nightmare! Holiness can be both a promise and a threat.
Holiness as a Threat
Throughout the ages, since God said this in the Torah, at the very beginning of His relationship with His People, the standard set before mankind by God's Holiness is ... well ... like I said, "the impossible dream." The nation of Israel was, as writer Frederick Buechner said in his book, "Telling The Truth" - they're "just like us, only more so!"
The threat of holiness is in its "unless you do this, then that..." character. We heard it last week in the OT lesson:
"See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God ... then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, ... I declare to you today that you shall perish"
The problem or threat to holiness is us! Our character or lack thereof. Our complete inability to "do" what God commands us to "do." And because we DON'T do what God is expecting of us, then we are set on the scales and found wanting - judgement is our heritage, not eternal happiness.
This was the entire history of the Jewish people! A history of doing their best to "follow the rules" - in fact, they made more rules!! Building out from the 10 Commandments, which we heard echoes of in the Leviticus reading just now: "You shall not steal; You shall not defraud your neighbor; You shall not render an unjust judgement; You shall not hate in your heart any of your kin." The Jewish leaders were so caught up in keeping the rules, that they missed the point !!
But it wasn't just those under the Old Covenant that struggled - Paul himself recounts this battle within himself in the 7th chapter of Romans... (reading from The Message)
Don’t you remember how it was? I do, perfectly well. The law code started out as an excellent piece of work. What happened, though, was that sin found a way to pervert the command into a temptation, making a piece of “forbidden fruit” out of it. ... The very command that was supposed to guide me into life was cleverly used to trip me up, throwing me headlong. ... What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise ... I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
What Paul is describing is the struggle to "be holy" - one that we so often fight alone - in our inside world, in our heart and mind. The "battlefield of the mind" some have called it. We read the words of Holy Writ and we think that by trying harder we can do what God wants of us and somehow earn a spot in heaven.
But we keep coming up short. That what Paul is talking about here in Romans - the fact that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God!" The experience he recounted above is our common heritage! We all want to be good - to be better at least, but we have no power within us to accomplish what God commands!
And there is the rub. And there is the promise.
Holiness as Promise
Do you think that God knew? That God knows about yours and my struggle? well.... yes. The bible tells us that God "knows whereof we are made, that we are but dust." We will hear it in a week and a half! "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." When we come to remember that fact and begin our Lenten journey together on Ash Wednesday.
But as we prepare for that time and think about the disciplines of Lent, we need to begin with our hearts. That is the seat of the problem. The ancient prophets spoke to the problem
Jeremiah: The heart is desperately wicked - deceitfully so - who can know it?
Ezekiel: You have a heart of stone!
But God has promised also through Ezekiel: I will give you a new heart - a heart of flesh - and I will write my laws on your hearts." A new heart and a new spirit will be yours!
Friends, our power and the promise of holiness is found in the promise of the Father! Going back to these words from the prophets, predicting the work of the Holy Spirit of God in our lives today, the scriptures lay out a promise for us who are "in Christ." And we can start with Paul, in the pinnacle of his writing in Romans, who says:
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. ... The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God!
You have all heard me talk about the great exchange, right? The promise that God has given us of our life, IN CHRIST! Paul is still talking to the Corinthian church, this time in his second letter when he says,
Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. ... Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! ... How? you ask. In Christ. God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.
In the more traditional language -- "God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that IN HIM we might become the righteousness of God!"
Here is the promise of holiness. Not that we can be holy by keeping the rules - by looking at the laws and making sure that we are keeping them all perfectly - it is impossible, "the impossible dream." Our hope and the gift of God is that "while we were weak and powerless [when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready] ... Then Jesus came - God died for the ungodly! And exchanged His power and righteousness - His holiness - for our sin, our shame, our filth, our pain, our poverty, our weakness, our inability - He exchanged it for His ability.
The promise of holiness is not in ourselves, dear ones. It is IN CHRIST! Again one last phrase from the apostle --
"Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness."
It is in His strength and in His righteousness, that we work out the details of what living a holy life means. All the rules are the same, and they are kept but not because of what we are working harder at - trying to be something we are not - but because we realize and acknowledge our weakness and bankruptcy, and we come to rely on Him and on Him alone. Our holiness is Jesus. Period.
And here I have to revert back to the old King James, for the final words from Paul:
"this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus."
Shall we pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, you have given your life to redeem my life ... my real life ... my every day, walking-around, working, playing, real life. And you have exchanged your life for mine - your righteousness for mine - your relationship with the Father for mine! Draw me now, - draw us all - into the depths of your life and send your
Spirit - your Holy Spirit - to breathe that life into us. Put in us new hearts, O God, - new spirits enlivened and
empowered by Your Spirit. Help us to set our eyes on you, the Author and Finisher of our faith. And help us
to press on toward the mark of our Call into Your life, Lord Jesus. Help us to live the righteousness and the
holiness that you are, in us. Help us to become the righteousness of God, in You, Jesus.
For your name's sake and for the sake of Your kingdom.