What Does Holiness Look Like?

If you have ever asked, "What Does Holiness Look Like?" then look at Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18. October 19, 2008.

            What Does Holiness Look Like? A bright beam of heavenly light or a glowing halo over your head? Holiness, after all, isn’t only an attribute of God. God tells us to be holy. So what would convince eyewitnesses that you are? I suppose you could walk around like the priests did in those old movies, with their hands constantly in a clasped position and calling others “my son” or “my daughter”. Would that be sufficient evidence? Or how about if you wore a cross around your neck and constantly carried a Bible? Or if you got rid of all your T-shirts with funky sayings on them and switched to religious-slogan T-shirts? How about if you prayed aloud in public places? What Does Holiness Look Like?

            Do you see the problem? Describing what holiness looks like is as frustrating as trying to describe to a mechanic what noise your car is making. It’s just hard to explain. My mechanic, Bob, has a cheat sheet taped onto the front counter in his shop that actually explains different car noises like clunk and squeak and rattle. It’s quite helpful. Open to the book of Leviticus and you’ll read God’s guide to help you understand holiness. The word itself means “set apart” or “consecrated,” as in distinct from what is ordinary and definitely from what is sinful. “You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean,” God instructed earlier (10:10). That’s holiness. He goes on, reminding us today that he himself is holy and requiring us to be holy too. And what does that look like?

            “Do not pervert justice.” God expects us to be honest and to live by set Biblical principles. “Do not use dishonest standards,” he explains later (v. 35). Living by one set of standards for yourself that allows you to do what you want but a different set of standards for everyone else that doesn’t allow them the same privileges – that’s perverting justice. That’s not holiness. “Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” God expects us to treat everyone with respect and not harbor any bias that treats anyone unfairly. Saying that a Democrat can’t be a Christian or that a Republican isn’t compassionate – that’s unfair judging. That’s not holiness. “Do not go about spreading slander.” Slander is telling rumors of unsubstantiated truth in a sinful way. “Did you hear about Rose? I heard she didn’t just quit but was asked to resign” – that’s slander. That’s not holiness. “Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life,” is meant to prohibit a person from taking advantage of somebody else’s physical misfortune. Parking in a handicapped spot or other areas reserved for the physically challenged, when you are not such a person – that’s taking advantage of the less fortunate. That’s not holiness. “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.” God expects us to approach others about their bad behavior because we love them, not because we hate them. Sharp criticisms, sarcastic jabs, or showing someone up in front of your peers means there is hatred in your heart. That’s not holiness. “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge.” God expects us to let go of others’ sins. Constantly reminding your spouse about his or her sinful tendencies, or storing a few of his or her sins up in your pocket do you can haul them out during an argument – that’s bearing a grudge. That’s not holiness.

            “Love your neighbor as yourself,” God explains. His expectations for holiness don’t get any clearer, then again, understanding what God expects isn’t the problem. Practicing it is. What Does Holiness Look Like? We’re kidding ourselves if we think holiness is attending church or completing confirmation class so that we can rattle off the Ten Commandments (and as a bonus vaguely recall Luther’s explanations). That’s as holy as a thief who memorized the building schematics of Community State Bank, and then robbed it. Holiness is using what we understand in a way that loves God and others. But my sinful self much prefers to love “me.” That’s why without God I’m not holy, because I have loved me more than God and my neighbor. I’m biased unfairly because I love me. I spread rumors because I love me and want me to look better than others. I take advantage of others’ misfortune because I’m so tuned into loving me that I don’t see their needs. I criticize because I love me and don’t have a problem hurting others to make me feel good. I bear grudges to hold others under my control because I love me. What a wonderful world it could be if I loved everyone else as much as I love me! But I’m so concerned about me that I neglect Jesus’ command to love my neighbor, and therefore I don’t love God as much as I claim. The Bible says, “Anyone who does not love remains in death Anyone who does not love does not know God If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 3:14, 4:8,20).

            On Wednesday I sat next to an Islam theologian and a Unitarian pastor, having been invited to participate in a panel discussion on Milwaukee public radio. They stated quite eloquently that the solution to human dilemma must come from humans. We don’t love each other enough so the solution is loving each other more. We’re too violent so the solution is to not be so violent. We’re too independent and self-reliant as individuals so the solution is to connect with other independent and self-reliant people to discover dependency and cooperation. How can any solution to human indecency – my human indecency that doesn’t love like I should and doesn’t want to love like I should – come from the human heart? How can the quest for holiness in our homes and communities and world find its origin or destiny in the sinful human heart? How can I, a lover of me, just wake up one morning and tell myself that I’m going to love God and others more than myself from now on? The answer to our lack of holy love will not come from the unholy human heart so don’t look for it there. When you look in the mirror and see a sinner, don’t look in the mirror for salvation. Look to your Lord God, who saves you right here in this codebook of holiness. “I, the Lord your God, and holy I am the Lord.”

            Maybe you feel like Isaiah the prophet when you’re confronted by the holiness of God? Fire is shooting out everywhere and the earth is shaking and angels’ booming voices pound in your ears, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:3)! Does the holiness of God make your heart drop to the pit of your stomach as you murmur, “Woe to me! I am ruined” (v. 5)? That’s okay. That’s the scared part of holy fear that comes from your sinful self, knowing that its control of your life is being wrenched away by your mighty Savior. In his next breath, after God’s holiness set him apart to go and serve, Isaiah cried out, “Here am I! Send me” (v. 8). That’s the sacred part of holy fear that comes from your spiritual self, knowing that its control of your life is being empowered by your merciful Savior.

            Be empowered and encouraged by your Savior’s holy love right here in the law book of Leviticus. In the midst of high and holy expectations spelled out as the minimum standard, your Savior pledges that his holy love doesn’t just make demands but first gives and blesses. 73 times in 29 chapters he calls himself “I am” or “the Lord your God.” He reminds you in two little words, “I am,” that he “is,” he is the one who exists on his own, the only being totally independent from any other force in the universe. Since he doesn’t require fuel, depend on the economy, take his place in the food chain or answer to superiors, your holy “I am” God is above imperfection, weakness, or outside influence by other powers. He then uses his name, “the Lord,” with capital letters in your Bible to remind you that this is Jehovah God of the covenant and he is holy and faithful to his promises. When he says you are forgiven or you will be fulfilled it’s perfectly and completely done. And if that sounds like something too good to be true for you – like winning prizes seems to always happen to everyone else but not you – then he reassures you that he is “your God.” That word “your” is a personal possessive pronoun. God is saying that you possess him in a holy and personal way. He is all yours. You are all his. Nobody else stands between you. Nothing else separates you. Your relationship is holy, set apart from everything else. Finally, the Lord God asked Moses to say these things to the “entire assembly,” making it clear that he placed no restrictions on his holy love that perfectly saves sinners. So instead of looking in the mirror for the answer to unholiness, look in God’s Word and look at God’s works. Then, God will reflect his holiness through you, as he says, “Be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy.” What Does Holiness Look Like?

            God is holy in his justice. “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32:4). When Jesus came he acted according to principled, determined love that could not be compromised no matter what the cost – even death. For that reason you can be just as committed to him and others. God is not biased toward or against certain people. “For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11). God loves people in a holy way not based on where people come from or what people can do, but on who he is and what he has promised. For that reason you can show mercy to everyone. God doesn’t take revenge or bear grudges against any sinner who repents. For that reason you can“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). The command to love one’s neighbor as oneself is not given just because loving one’s neighbor is a good idea or because it makes the community run better. Rather we observe the commend because loving one’s neighbor is the extension of holiness. By loving your neighbor, you are loving God.

            There’s one day of the week when that is easier to do than other days. I love Sundays because I get to put on my white robe and stand at the altar or in the pulpit and just get a bit closer to God. As a matter of fact, so close that little Claudia approached me in my white robe a few Sundays ago for a hug after telling her mom she wanted to give a hug to Jesus. Talk about feeling holy! But then, like you, I leave this place. I take off my robe, and later my tie, go home and tend to the list of house repairs, and somehow it seems like the holiness factor diminishes. No. It might look that way on the outside, but you and I are no different on Thursday than we are on Sunday, no different out there than we are in here, and God’s promises are just as true on Tuesday as they are today. That’s what the book of Leviticus says. This book contains the greatest concentration of references to holiness in the Bible for everyday life. Holiness cannot be rolled up into a single pious activity or be reduced to a way of dressing. Rather, the imprint of God’s holy love is expressed in our daily acts of thoughtfulness, kindness, justice, mercy, and generosity toward others. What Does Holiness Look Like? Don’t be surprised when someone finds the answer in you. Because you have found the answer in God. Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (www.gracedowntown.org) on October 19, 2008

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