Sermon – Living Stones

Four times, three in the Old Testament, one in Peter’s first letter, we’re told “I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.”

God commands us to be holy—He does so because it is only as we grow in holiness that we can truly be connected to Him in the way that Peter describes in the reading you heard this morning.

We are all flawed masterpieces—in one way or another, and to one degree or another, the image of God in which we were formed has become broken or corrupted or twisted out of shape through what the Bible calls sin. Holiness is about the restoration of who we were made to be—God’s people. A people who are holy.

Because it is only when we conform to and reflect God’s holiness in our lives that we become fully and truly human. But we are so broken, often so certain that we know better even than God what’s best for us, that we resist, we rebel—we even run away.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Galatian church, a people unwilling to give themselves completely to God: “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19).

Paul had seen God’s glory—and once he saw it, he was never again the same.

Moses saw God’s glory—Exodus 24:16-18 says, “The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai … Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain ….”

And later, when Moses came down from his encounter with God on Mount Sinai, we’re told that “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29).

God’s glory had rubbed off on Moses—the people saw it and the next verse says that “they were afraid to come near him” (Exodus 34:30).

God’s glory—which is His holiness—is so great that it terrifies those who are allowed to see it. God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). And when He did, Moses face would shine with reflected glory.

The Israelite people, however, didn’t want that much God in their lives. They told Moses that he should talk to God and then just tell them what God said.

Are we like those ancient people? Wanting a little God in our lives but afraid to let Him in completely. Do we somehow understand that surrendering to Him completely will change everything in our lives? That we won’t be able to say no to anything He asks of us?

C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, gives us a picture of building renovation to describe the way that God works in us. He writes, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.

But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards.

You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage; but he is building up a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.

The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are here for. Nothing less.”

Much of the pain that he describes is, of course, our resistance to the work that God desires to do in us—the work of making us holy. A process that Lewis experienced firsthand when God brought him from atheism to complete surrender.

Because when C. S. Lewis encountered the glory and holiness of God, he could do nothing but give himself to the Lord.

The prophet Isaiah encountered the holy and living God—interestingly, God waited until after Isaiah had begun to prophesy to give him the vision that we heard in this morning’s reading. A vision that occurred after God had spoken to Isaiah in chapter 5, describing the future destruction of the vineyard of the Lord, which Isaiah knew was the nation of Israel. The Lord told Isaiah that, “My people go into exile for lack of knowledge” (Isaiah 5:13). Not for lack of faith—but for lack of knowledge.

Then Isaiah see the Lord sitting on a throne, “high and lifted up,” with seraphim calling out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

Isaiah was still in the early years of a ministry that would last almost sixty years, a ministry that would cover the reign of four kings—Uzziah, who had recently died, was the first of those four. Uzziah, who had begun his reign so well, seeking God’s guidance and experiencing great success—but whose pride in that success led to his eventual downfall.

Isaiah is apparently thinking about all this in the temple when he meets the King of kings seated on His throne. Met the King who would never disappoint, who would never finish badly. The King who is really in control of all things. Isaiah sees not only the glory and holiness of God, but also his own sinfulness. His sinfulness that God removes—not because Isaiah has done anything deserving, but purely by the grace of holy and almighty God.

Isaiah is changed—so that when God asks in the next verse who He can send, Isaiah immediately replies, “Here is am, Lord, send me.” God has changed him, cleansed him, and for the rest of his life, Isaiah will be wholly devoted to serving the Lord.

For Isaiah, to see the glory and holiness of God was a call to action. A call to devote his life to this great God.

Peter and the rest of the apostles encountered God’s glory in Jesus, although it took them a while to recognize it. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus revealed His glory to Peter, James and John—and they were terrified. They didn’t know how to respond.

Who is God? How can we see His glory? His holiness? This is what Philip wants to know in our gospel reading. The next day Jesus will die on the cross and He’s trying to prepare His disciples for His departure from them.  Jesus asks him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Jesus is holiness with a face.

I know that some of you like to put together jigsaw puzzles. You begin with a jumbled mess, but as each piece is placed where it belongs, the picture becomes clearer. And with each piece that’s added, it becomes easier to fit new pieces into their places.

So it is with us as God goes to work fitting the pieces of our lives together to form the picture that He knows is there—despite the fact that we might be finding it very difficult to see the way all the mistakes and wrong choices we’ve made could ever be fitted together to form anything good or beautiful. Our part begins simply with our surrender: “Here I am, Lord. Do with me what you will.”

When you begin those jigsaw puzzles, you have a picture on the box to guide you. You know what the puzzle should look like when it’s finished. So, too, has God, in His great mercy and grace, given us a picture of the finished product—Jesus.

Hebrews 1:3 “The Son, Jesus, is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.”

The question before us is: Am I willing to surrender my will to God? Am I willing to be changed into the image of Jesus, to be made holy?

Holiness is a gift we receive when we believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But we need to unpack and use the gift

Most of you are probably familiar with the much more famous 19th century missionary, Hudson Taylor, who works for many years to bring Christ to the Chinese. Although we remember him today as a man of great faith, a powerful prayer warrior, totally devoted to serving the Lord, Hudson Taylor went through a period of great struggle, longing for more holiness in his life. He wrote, “I prayed, I agonized, fasted, strove, made resolutions, read the Word more diligently … but all was without effect. Every day, almost every hour, the consciousness of sin oppressed me. … Must it be thus to the end—constant conflict and, instead of victory, too often defeat?”

Most of us can probably relate to this—I know I can. We want to know God more, we want to overcome sin in our life—we try and try and try and nothing works.

For Hudson Taylor, the answer came in the form of a letter from his friend and fellow missionary John McCarthy, who had recently encountered God in a new way. McCarthy put it this way: “The Lord Jesus received is holiness begun; the Lord Jesus cherished is holiness advancing; the Lord Jesus counted upon as never absent would be holiness complete.”

McCarthy went on to describe the radical difference this message was making in his life: “Abiding, not striving nor struggling; looking off unto Him; trusting Him for present power; trusting Him to subdue all inward corruption; resting in the love of an almighty Savior; … this is not new, and yet it is new to me. I feel as though the first dawning of a glorious day has risen upon me.”

For Hudson Taylor, this was transformative. Later he wrote that after reading his friend’s letter, “As I read, I saw it all! … I looked to Jesus and saw (and when I saw, oh, how joy flowed!) that He has said, ‘I will never leave you,’ ‘Ah, there is rest!’ I thought. … I saw not only that Jesus would never leave me, but that I was a member of His body, of His flesh and of His bones … Oh, the joy of seeing this truth! … It is a wonderful thing to be really one with a risen and exalted Savior; to be a member of Christ! Think what it involves. Can Christ be rich and I poor? Can your right hand be rich and the left poor? Or your head be well fed while your body starves? All this springs from the believer’s oneness with Christ. And since Christ has thus dwelt in my heart by faith, how happy I have been!”

This is what Peter is describing in the passage we heard this morning. He gives us the picture of a church built out of living stones. Stones that are connected, every single one, to the cornerstone that is Jesus. Stones that can be, through that connection, changed.

Isaiah 35:8 says, “And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; it shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can grow in holiness, we can overcome sin in our lives—even besetting sins that we’ve battled for years—we can do all this simply by handing over control of our lives to Jesus. In looking to Jesus, Hudson Taylor discovered the power to live a holy life. He wrote, “I am as capable of sinning as ever, but Christ is realized as present as never before. He cannot sin; and He can keep me from sinning.”

Jesus can keep you and me from sinning. And when we do sin, He will cleanse and pardon us. Through the cross of Jesus Christ, God has made provision for every sin we could possibly commit. And His grace is far more powerful than any sinful bondage.

Another famous man of God who lived in the 19th century said, “Though you have struggled in vain against your evil habits, though you have wrestled with them sternly, and resolved, and re-resolved, only to be defeated by your giant sins and your terrible passions, there is One who can conquer all your sins for you. There is One who is stronger than Hercules, who can strangle the hydra of your lust, kill the lion of your passions, and cleanse Augean (impossible) stable of your evil nature by turning the great rivers of blood and water of his atoning sacrifice right through your soul. He can make and keep you pure within. Oh, look to Him!”

Are we ready for this much God in our lives? Are you? And are you actively seeking Him? Did you come here this morning hoping to hear some words that would encourage you a bit during the coming week? Or did you come expecting and preparing to encounter the living God? To encounter Him in a mighty and powerful and life-changing way?

Do we want to have the power of God

Do you know God? Really know Him? Or do you just think you do? Isaiah and Moses and Hudson Taylor and John McCarthy and C. S. Lewis all thought they knew God—until they developed such a longing for Him that He revealed Himself to them in all His glory and holiness.

Do we want just a little bit of God or do we want to really know Him?

A pastor named Tommy Tenney writes in his book, The God Chasers, about the way he met God in a Houston, Texas, church.  He thought he new God but he and his friend, the pastor of the church, had been praying for God to really show up. Really praying.

He said the pastor read 2 Chronicles 7:14 “If My people, who are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and I will heal their land.”

Then the pastor said, “The word of the Lord to us is to stop seeking His benefits and seek Him. We are not to seek His hands any longer, but seek His face.”

In that instant, Tenney wrote, he “heard what sounded like a thunderclap echo through the building, and the pastor was literally picked up and thrown backward about ten feet. … When he went backward, the pulpit fell forward, … and by the time the pulpit hit the ground, it was already in two pieces. It had split into two pieces almost as if lightning had hit it! At that instant the tangible terror of the presence of God filled that room.”

“No one really paid much attention to the split pulpit; we were too occupied with the torn heavenlies. The presence of God had hit that place like some kind of bomb. People began to weep and wail.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, are we prepared to receive God in that way in our midst? Are we crying out for the living God to come—not for what He can do for us or give us, but simply because we long for His presence, for His holiness?

Are we willing to allow Him to be at work in our lives, doing whatever need to be done to make us more holy? To shape and transform and renovate us into the living stones that He created us to be? Are we willing to say not only, “Take me, Lord, but take all that I have, take my entire life, take this church—and do with us what you will?”

Are you living God’s plan for your life? A life that is holy? A life that is growing ever more sanctified? A life of truth, love, joy, humility and servanthood?

And if we’re not, what are we doing here? Why are we wasting our time? Because if you’re not living that kind of life now, what makes you think you’d want to live that kind of life after you die?