Sermon – Pursuing Holiness

Imagine for a moment that, as we’re gathered here this morning, the angel Gabriel suddenly appears—and tells us that Jesus will return tomorrow morning.  How might that change what you had planned for the rest of the day?

What if we received advance notice that Jesus will return in December—this December. How might that change your plans for the year? Or maybe just your plans for November? Perhaps just the last week of November?

How might your priorities change?

This is the question we’re being asked by the author of the letter to the Hebrews, who is reminding us of the “Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). Reminding us that it matters how we live.

2000 years ago, the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared to a young girl—an ordinary girl living in an obscure village in Galilee.  Appeared in what had been, up to then, an ordinary day—a day when this girl named Mary was just living her life.  Appeared and told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she would become pregnant—with the Son of God. And from that very moment, everything changed for Mary—suddenly and unexpectedly. Whatever she had planned for that day—and for the rest of her life—was set aside to follow God’s plan for her.

The child promised to Zechariah and Elizabeth was in response to many prayers. The promised child to Mary was a complete and total surprise. The angel didn’t ask how she felt about becoming the mother of the Son of God—he didn’t ask if she was OK with it. He didn’t ask her to think about it and get back to Him—Gabriel just told her God’s plan for her, and she replied, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

She did ask wonder how it was possible for an unmarried virgin to become pregnant. “And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).

We know this story—we’ve probably heard it hundreds of times. But when you hear it, how often do you consider the fact that the Holy Spirit that came upon Mary all those years ago in Nazareth is the same Holy Spirit who’s come upon you and me? How often do you consider that this Holy Spirit who could conceive a child and place it in the womb of a virgin is the same Holy Spirit who has come upon you and me? Who lives in you and me—bringing that same power to do incredible, miraculous things through you and me? It wasn’t Mary who caused herself to give birth to the Son of God. All she contributed was her physical body and a willing heart.

Why Mary? Was she perfect? Without sin? There are some in the church who believe that she was—who believe that she could not have been the mother of the Son of God unless she was totally free of sin. This doctrine is known as the Immaculate Conception.

The problem with this doctrine is that we don’t find it anywhere in Scripture. There’s no evidence that Mary was anything other than an ordinary young girl—born into the world infected with original sin, just like you and me. There is in fact evidence of sin on Mary’s part when she tries to get the adult Jesus to stop preaching the kingdom of God.

Mary wasn’t perfect—but at the same time she was set apart, she was holy. In the passage we heard earlier from Leviticus 20, God says that the Jewish people are holy because He had separated them from all the other peoples.

The author of the letter to the Hebrews calls us to remember that we are holy not because of anything we’ve done. We’re not holy because we’re better than other people. We’re holy because we have been called out by God to belong to Him. Holiness isn’t something that can be earned—holiness is a gift that God bestows on His people.

I don’t think most of us in the church really understand holiness—and maybe that’s why we so rarely talk about it. Somehow we have the idea that we have to make ourselves holy—and when we’re being honest with ourselves, we all know that’s impossible.

The Bible doesn’t just tell us it’s impossible for us to make ourselves holy—it shows us. We have the entire Old Testament, in which God calls out a people to belong to Him. 2000 years before Jesus was born, God called Abraham to be the father of a people—a people that God would set apart from all other people. A people who would belong to Him. A people who, as we see in Leviticus 20:26, who are holy to God because God is holy. God is holy and so when He separates people to belong to Him, they become holy also.

Why Abraham? We don’t know—we find plenty of evidence that Abraham is a sinner, but God chose Him anyway. And God takes the Jews, descended from Abraham’s son Isaac out of Egypt—He separates them from the Egyptians and all the other nations. He gives them a land of their own and He gives them His law—His rules that will, if they keep them perfectly, make them holy. That will, in effect, bring them back to a perfect world, to heaven on earth. He tells them:

Deuteronomy 28:1-10 If you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. … Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. … Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. … The Lord will establish you as a people holy to himself, … if you keep the commandments of the Lord and walk in his ways.

It was a big if—and of course God knew that they would never be able to keep the law.

But now, everything has changed. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that something has changed—but it’s not us. We have received this gift of holiness—and with it we have received the same Holy Spirit that fell on Mary that day when everything in her life changed.

We have power available to us that those ancient Israelites didn’t have. We have been made holy through the offering of the perfect sacrifice of God’s beloved Son, Jesus, who in perfect obedience to His Father lived a perfect life—a life totally without sin. It is because of His sacrifice that the Holy Place, the place where we meet with God, is open to us.

In the Old Covenant, only the appointed high priest could enter into the “holy of holies” and then only once each year. But as Jesus’ body was torn apart as He was beaten and hung on the cross, so too was the curtain that separated the holy of holies from the people torn in two. And at that moment, everything changed. No longer must we go through a priest to come to the Lord God.

Now all of us who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior are invited—are welcomed—into the presence of God at any time. Day or night, no matter where we are or what we’re doing. But, the author of Hebrews is telling us, but unless we enter with confidence and with “full assurance of faith,” we will fail to receive the full benefit of the spiritual resources available to us.

“The Most Holy Place” is the place where we meet God—and through the new life in the Spirit which the New Covenant provides, He has come into our hearts. And, because we have Him living in us, we have become, in the words of Paul, “colaborers with God.”

We have become holy. And while believers are never called to make themselves holy, we are called to care for the gift we have received—and we’re called to show it off, to display it to the world in the best possible light. It is, as one writer put it, as if we have inherited the gift of the family silver. We didn’t earn it; we didn’t buy it; it became ours as the result of a death in the family. But now that it’s ours, we must polish it and take care of it and use it for the benefit of others. We must display it to the best advantage.

Especially, as Hebrews tells us, as we “see the Day drawing near.”

We can do this, Hebrews says, not because of any confidence we might have in our own abilities, but because we have a “great priest over the house of God.” We have Jesus, who is continually available, always completely aware of our situation, and always totally committed to remaining involved with us in working all things together for good. His great concern is the welfare of each member of the household of God, and “we are his house” (Hebrews 3:6).

Caring for this great gift of holiness that comes along with the gift of faith is our responsibility. And that gift can grow strong and resilient only if it is nurtured and nourished on the Word of God. Only if we feed ourselves regularly with the bread of life—not just a nibble here and there, but a full-course meal. On a regular basis.

This is how we can prepare ourselves and then keep ourselves ready for the Day that is drawing near. The day for which we have been promised there will be no advance notice—the Day when Jesus returns? Returns to judge the living and the dead.

How ready are you?

Was Mary ready when the angel Gabriel suddenly appeared and told her that her life was about to change forever? Did she have any idea of what lie ahead of her? Did Abraham know what lie ahead of Him when God called him to pack up and follow Him, not knowing where he was going? Did Moses know what lie ahead of him when he approached that burning bush and heard God’s plan for the rest of his life?

We’re all really busy with lots of things—things that we think are really important. How willing would we be to set those things aside if God sent an angel with a new plan for us?

Mary, Abraham, Moses … and so many others. None of them had any advance notice that God had big plans for them until He just showed up. Somehow, though, they were ready. And they had willing hearts.

So what is it that we must do today and tomorrow and the next day and every day? We must be holy. We must live as if we knew—and really believed—that Jesus would be returning tomorrow morning.

We must be holy—not just for ourselves but for everyone else. Because just as an inheritance of the family silver isn’t about just our personal enjoyment, but our using that gift to allow the rest of the family to enjoy it as well, so too, is the gift of holiness not just something for our personal enjoyment.  The letter to the Hebrews isn’t addressed to individuals—it’s addressed to the body of Christ. Because the author, like Peter, like Paul, understood that we’re all connected. That what I do affects you and what you do affects me and everyone else. Peter, in his first letter, describes us as “living stones built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (I Peter 2:5).

We have this idea in our culture today that you can do whatever you think is best for you and I can do whatever I think is best for me—and what we do doesn’t affect anybody else.

Think about it—how many people have been affected by Adam’s sin? Every single one of us. And how many have been affected by Jesus’ holy life and holy sacrifice? Every single one of us.

How many people were affected when Joseph trusted and obeyed God even when his life seemed to be going from bad to worse?

How many people were affected by Moses’ willingness to lead the Israelite people out of their captivity in Egypt? What if he’d said, “No, thanks, God.”

How many people were affected when Paul accepted Jesus’ call to him?

How many people were affected when Martin Luther refused to renounce his understanding that salvation is by faith alone? Refused to stop teaching that salvation comes from God alone and not from the pope? When Luther was excommunicated from the church, most people believed that he was condemned to hell—because they didn’t know that it was God alone and not the pope who determines our salvation.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, what must we do?  The author of Hebrews says that we must be holy. What does that mean? It means that we must live as we would live if we knew that Jesus would be returning tomorrow morning.

We must live in a way that never forgets the great gift we have received. Never forget the blood that Christ shed for us, the way He opened—that He tore apart with His body—and the work He does. This letter mentions the blood shed by Jesus Christ on the cross more than any other New Testament book.

When we continually hold before us what Jesus has done for us—and when we consider where we would be had He not—it changes the way we live. But it’s not just about the way we worship or pray or read the Bible—it’s about the way we live. Every single thing we do or think should be done with a reliance on Jesus—and with the understanding that what we do affects others.

We’re called to hold fast to our Christian belief in the midst of a world where values are continually changing.

10:25 “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

When we’re all part of the same family, we have a responsibility to encourage one another. In the words of John Wesley, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” The failure to meet together, to join the assembly for worship is seen in this letter as a serious weakness. Part of the reason may be that we are limiting our opportunities to do good works for the care of one another. Close and regular fellowship with other believers isn’t just a nice idea—it’s an absolute necessity for the encouragement of Christian values.

Some of you might think that God doesn’t really care if you’re not in church every Sunday, especially if you’re involved in what might seem to you to be important activities. The author of Hebrews is concerned about more than attending worship, however. It’s about interacting with your Christian brothers and sisters, in a way that lets them know you care about them. It’s about our willingness to help struggling faith wherever Christians meet. It could be getting together for lunch now and then with a fellow Christian or beginning a Bible study in your home. It could be extending friendship to a neighbor or volunteering at the school or at our daycare. It could be visiting that lonely senior citizen who lives alone.

Because the Day is drawing near.

The reason why we seem to be continually experiencing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, wildfires and tornadoes, blizzards and hailstorms, wars and rumors of war, it to help us to remember that the Day is drawing near.

We’re called to live every day as if that Day were just beyond the horizon. If you knew for certain that Jesus was going to return in the morning, how would you spend this day?

Martin Luther

Hebrews was written to believers who were struggling; some scholars believe that they may have been considering isolating themselves from the local church. While there is no local church that is perfect, we’re called to work to correct deficiencies—work together—rather than to run away. We need to put our common faith ahead of all differences as we deal with one another in love. And that love must have a practical outcome.

When the day that is drawing near arrives, we’ll all wish we’d done so much more. Surely as we look around and see who’s not part of the set apart people of God, we’ll wonder if we might have done something that would have pointed them to Jesus.

Think about these things this week—in the words of Hebrews, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”