You Shall Be Holy

Sermon by:
Rev. Terri Thorn
delivered on:
February 19, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 5:38-48
Leviticus 18:1-2, 9-18

You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. 

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Personally, as soon as I hear the words “be holy” or “be perfect”, I am drawn back toward a time in my life that I've tried really hard to put behind me.  A time when being perfect meant fear of not being good enough...a fear of making mistakes. It takes me to a time of relationship-damaging driven-ness aimed toward what I know was an impossible goal.  Still, I thought that's what it meant to be a good Christian. 

So when I hear God say, you shall be holy...or be perfect...I want to just say, "Really, God?  Do we really have to go down this road again?"

This week the answer came to me loud and clear..."Why yes, Terri, we do.  I meant it then, and I mean it now...you shall be holy. My beloved church shall be holy."

Still, it is intimidating to preach on the holiness code from Leviticus.  For one thing, God's design for holiness is often misused and abused in preaching…inflicting deep hurt. Not to mention, the minute someone starts talking about holiness or being holy, one of two responses usually emerges.  People either posture themselves defensively waiting for the "holier than thou" attitude that they think is coming, or they drop their eyes in shame thinking that they can never be holy. Not with their life.  Not with their story.

But here's the thing folks...this is the exact reason we need to hear these words of scripture.  Our brokenness is the reason we gather to hear the good news of God's love proclaimed.  This passage, which is often referred to as holiness code, is actually good news for everyone.  You see, God wasn't just issuing orders with an imperative statement here.  He wasn't your mom saying, "You will do this because I said so."  It might be tricky to detect the difference without the original Hebrew text, but I believe God speaks this as a declaration.  He declared his people as holy.  In other words, he was telling the Israelites, whom Moses had just brought out of slavery, that they were being made into holy people. As ones now belonging to God, who is holy, so were they.

Keep in mind though that the definition of holy is not that God's people are completely pure or perfect without blemish.  Trust me, we don't have to read much of the Old Testament to know that the Israelites would prove to have plenty of impurity and blemishes.  And we don't have to look beyond ourselves to know that, in many ways, humanity hasn't really changed much through the generations.  We, God's people, still have our fair share of moral flaws and ethical failures.  Few of us are Mary Poppins...we are not practically perfect in every way.  

We are, however, still holy.  Through Christ and our baptism, we are his church. And that makes us holy.  You see, by definition, to be holy is to be chosen...to be set apart...separate from the base and the worldly.  And although God spoke his words to Moses at a specific time and place, they are timeless for all his people.   God's covenant still holds true for all who will enter it.  God's people are set apart because God chooses to set us apart.   And our "perfection" is that we have been chosen by a perfect God to fulfill his perfect purpose.  In other words, for God's people, life is about living God's perfect life, rather than about living life perfectly!

That truth alone is the good news most of us need to hear!

Friends, God set apart the Israelites by the work and ministry of Moses and the prophets.  Later, God set apart his church through the work and ministry of his son Jesus Christ.  It is why these two passages of "law" (if you will) are so easily intertwined.  They both serve the same purpose.  They show God's people how to be the people of God.

These statements are not meant to be a list of what you must do or not do in order to be set part as holy; nor is it a checklist by which we earn holiness either.  All of this holiness code describes our way of living because we are holy.  The things that Moses told the Israelites that they shall do were markers, or evidence, of their having been chosen for holiness.  In other words, this are characteristics of how God's people shall live.  And how others will know that these people belong to God.

The same is true for what Jesus conveyed to the disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.  God's people...Christ followers...are called to be different. They will be known for living beyond the letter and into to the intent of the law of love.  They will live the way Jesus describes and modeled, not to earn his mercy, but because they have it.  Not to receive grace, but as way to show the grace they have received. 

So, make no mistake...God, not any of our own doing, makes us into his holy people.  Just as the Israelites wandered for 40 years before they were delivered into the Promised Land, it's a safe bet to say that God is continually shaping us into his people, even now.  And, as we  continually being made holy, this is how we shall live:

God's people will be generous...not selfish or stingy.  They will care for the poor and the alien.  They will be known for their integrity...their honesty...and their hospitality to the stranger.  God's people, Christ-followers, will be recognized for their sense of justice, their expressions of kindness and compassion, and for their patience and peace. God's people will know their neighbor, be good to their neighbor, and be a good neighbor. They will not seek revenge but will instead do their part to reconcile.  As the familiar camp song says, Christians...the church...will be known by our love...for how we love God...and how we love others.  The way we choose to love demonstrates that we are God's holy, set apart, people!  Turns out that maybe you can judge a book by its cover…or a life by its fruit.

At the same time, and ever so humbling, is the additional truth that God...God's presence...God's holiness...God's perfection...is revealed to the world by how his "set apart" people live their lives…by how we choose to be holy, individually and communally.   Which also means, by the way, that how we love others says a lot about the God in whom we believe and trust.   Let that sink in a moment.

Now, at times, the "you shall" and "I say to you" statements feel very personal...focused on the individual rather than the community.  However, it's important to keep in mind that the ancient Israelites to whom Moses spoke had no concept of individualism. Yes, they were individuals, and yes they were each accountable to God, but at the same time, their existence and meaning was conveyed by their participation in the community.  They were the People (the whole community) of God.   The same was true for the first century Christ-followers...yes they were individually accountable for their actions...but, again, their purpose and identity were always in the context of community. 

Sadly, American Christians, by the nature of our national identity of individualism, do not resonate with this concept of communal identity very easily.  It's difficult for us to balance our desire for a personal relationship with God with the need for a communal one as well.  We take the statements to heart personally, but we are not as quick to hear them as a message about the community of faith.  Yet, in both the Greek and the Hebrew, more often than not, the "you" in the statements of these readings is second person plural.  Also known to the southerners in the room as, "y'all".

So when Jesus teaches us from the Sermon on the Mount, or we hear God telling Moses to speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel, our 21st century ears should hear:  Church...collectively...you all shall be holy.  What you do together in the community...how the congregation lives out God's mission and our ministries...will be a reflection of God in the world.

So, church, be holy.  Be generous and compassionate and gracious. Feed the hungry.  Welcome stranger in your community.  Stretch beyond yourselves to make sure that those on the outside feel welcomed and loved too.  Demand and uphold truth.  Seek justice.  Be fair.  Be reconciled.  Be at peace with one another.

In other words, God is saying to the church...do what you do in such a way that those who don't know that I, the Lord your God am holy, when they have encountered the church and her ministries at work in the world...will see my holiness...in you and in themselves.

Now, I may be partial...but I believe that First Presbyterian Church is listening to God on this whole "be holy" thing.  We are holy.not because we have accomplished spectacular moral or ethical work in the world...not because we are exclusively righteous...but because we have proven to ourselves and to this community that First Presbyterian Church belongs to God...and not to the world.  We have revealed, and are continuing to make known, what it looks like to be God's holy church at work, being a good neighbor in the heart of Lebanon.

In a few minutes, during our annual meeting, we will have a chance to celebrate some of the ways we, the whole congregation, have lived the law of Christ's love in this faith family, in our community and in God's world.  We have not done things perfectly, but the provision of God during this past year would indicate that have attempted to do the right and perfect things for his glory. 

Some things have gone remarkably well...and others need some fine-tuning.  The good news of God's grace is what the choir sang for us this morning.  The Lord our God is not only holy, the Lord our God is the God of second chances.  Thank God for another year to discern his perfect work for FPC and to live as his holy people.

Pause

Just over a year ago, through prayerful discernment and the work of God's Holy Spirit, we established Guiding Vision for First Presbyterian Church.  It is, for us, a statement of what it means to be Christ's church, God's holy people, here and now.  We believe we have been called to learn continually, to love abundantly and to live faithfully, so all may know the perfect love of God.  Days like today remind us that we are doing this well.

So Church...whole congregation...y'all...we are holy, because the Lord our God is holy.  All praise be to God.  Amen.