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God’s Holiness – and Ours


Leviticus 19:2

Isaiah 55:6-9                              2nd Timothy 1:8-14                      Mark 6:14 -24


A “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 ourselves.

The “holier-than-thou” isn’t merely unattractive; she’s downright offensive. She 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 Matrimony”. Frequently the 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 washing.” “For God’s 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: (i) – Let’s start with worship.  One Sunday, John, exiled to the island of Patmos , 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 himself God-engulfed. “The 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.

(ii) – Something 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.

(iii) – Also 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.

(iv) – Also associated with God’s holiness is God’s loftiness. He towers 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.


II: — If we add up the clues, we have more than a little insight concerning God’s holiness. God’s 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?


III: (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 uniquely.

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 get home.”

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 disciples. Discipleship, we 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.

(ii) – 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 China were captured by the Japanese and interned in the Japanese-run prison camp in China , 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, frightened. Some were 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.

(iii) – Holy 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 undeniable.

Without 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.

Without 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.

Without 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.

Without 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.


No 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.


                                                                                                      Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

September 2005