Sunday, September 5

A Sunday To Think About God's Holiness

Once again, I tying Sunday's theme in with the previous week's post on God's attributes. Since I've already featured the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, I'm featuring a more obscure one, written by the great hymn writer, Charles Wesley. It parallels quite nicely with some of the points made about God's holiness in my post: that any holiness we possess is derived from God, that it is related to God's purity, that it is what sets God apart from all else, and that rightly understood, it humbles us. All this in four little carefully crafted, theologically dense verses. From the Cyber Hymnal:
Holy As Thou, O Lord, Is None
Holy as Thou, O Lord, is none;
Thy holiness is all Thine own;
A drop of that unbounded sea
Is ours--a drop derived from Thee.

And when Thy purity we share,
Thine only glory we declare;
And, humbled into nothing, own,
Holy and pure is God alone.

Sole, self-existing God and Lord,
By all Thy heav'nly hosts adored,
Let all on earth bow down to Thee,
And own Thy peerless majesty.

Thy power unparalleled confess,
Established on the Rock of peace;
The Rock that never shall remove,
The Rock of pure, almighty, love.
It's a pity this hymn is not better known, isn't it?

Today's sermon is from John Piper, and called Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts. It's a bit of an odd sermon, in that it has no application. It just ends by giving us statements about God's holiness and what it means, and assumes, I suppose, that we will be like Isaiah, and when we understand it rightly, our response will be the right one.
Remember how Reepicheep, the gallant mouse, at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader sailed to the end of the world in his little coracle? Well, the word "holy" is the little boat in which we reach the world's end in the ocean of language. The possibilities of language to carry the meaning of God eventually run out and spill over the edge of the world into a vast unknown. "Holiness" carries us to the brink and from there on the experience of God is beyond words.

The reason I say this is that every effort to define the holiness of God ultimately winds up by saying: God is holy means God is God. Let me illustrate. The root meaning of holy is probably to cut or separate. A holy thing is cut off from and separated from common (we would say secular) use. Earthly things and persons are holy as they are distinct from the world and devoted to God. So the Bible speaks of holy ground (Ex. 3:5), holy assemblies (Ex. 12:16), holy sabbaths (Ex. 16:23), a holy nation (Ex. 19:6); holy garments (Ex. 28:2), a holy city (Neh. 11:1), holy promises (Ps. 105:42), holy men (2 Pt. 1:21) and women (1 Pt. 3:5), holy scriptures (2 Tim. 3:15), holy hands (1 Tim. 2:8), a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16), and a holy faith (Jude 20). Almost anything can become holy if it is separated from the common and devoted to God.

But notice what happens when this definition is applied to God himself. From what can you separate God to make him holy? The very god-ness of God means that he is separate from all that is not God. There is an infinite qualitative difference between Creator and creature. God is one of a kind. Sui generis. In a class by himself. In that sense he is utterly holy. But then you have said no more than that he is God.

Or if the holiness of a man derives from being separated from the world and devoted to God, to whom is God devoted so as to derive his holiness? To no one but himself. It is blasphemy to say that there is a higher reality than God to which he must conform in order to be holy. God is the absolute reality beyond which is only more of God. When asked for his name in Exodus 3:14 he said, "I am who I am." His being and his character are utterly undetermined by anything outside himself. He is not holy because he keeps the rules. He wrote the rules! God is not holy because he keeps the law. The law is holy because it reveals God. God is absolute. Everything else is derivative.

What then is his holiness? Listen to three texts. 1 Samuel 2:2, "There is none holy like the Lord, there is none besides thee." Isaiah 40:25, "To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One." Hosea 11:9, "I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst." In the end God is holy in that he is God and not man. (Compare Lev. 19:2 and 20:7. Note parallel structure of Is. 5:16.) He is incomparable. His holiness is his utterly unique divine essence. It determines all that he is and does and is determined by no one. His holiness is what he is as God which no one else is or ever will be. Call it his majesty, his divinity, his greatness, his value as the pearl of great price. In the end language runs out. In the word "holy" we have sailed to the world's end in the utter silence of reverence and wonder and awe. There may yet be more to know of God, but that will be beyond words. "The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him" (Habakkuk 2:20).

But before the silence and the shaking of the foundations and the all-concealing smoke we learn a seventh final thing about God. God is glorious. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory." The glory of God is the manifestation of his holiness. God's holiness is the incomparable perfection of his divine nature; his glory is the display of that holiness. "God is glorious" means: God's holiness has gone public. His glory is the open revelation of the secret of his holiness. In Leviticus 10:3 God says, "I will show myself holy among those who are near me, and before all the people I will be glorified." When God shows himself to be holy, what we see is glory. The holiness of God is his concealed glory. The glory of God is his revealed holiness.

When the Seraphim say, "The whole earth is full of his glory," it is because from the heights of heaven you can see the end of the world. From down here the view of the glory of God is limited. But it's limited largely by our foolish preference for frills. To use a parable of Soren Kierkegaard, we are like people (who ride our carriage at night into the country to see the glory of God. But above us on either side of the carriage seat burns a gas lantern. As long as our head is surrounded by this artificial light the sky overhead is empty of glory. But if some gracious wind of the Spirit blows out our earthly lights, then in our darkness God's heavens are filled with stars.

Some day God will blow and turn away every competing glory and make his holiness known in awesome splendor to every humble creature. But there is no need to wait. Job, Isaiah, Charles Colson and many of you have humbled yourselves to go hard after the Holy God and have developed a taste for his majesty. To you and all the rest who are just beginning to feel it, I hold out this promise from God, who is ever alive, authoritative, omnipotent, resplendent, revered, holy and glorious, "You will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me (go hard after me) with all your heart" (Jer. 29:12-13).
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