Pastor Craig Carter
What are some words associated with Christmas?
First, let’s eliminate the obvious answer the preacher is looking for: Jesus. What else comes to mind?
From a cultural point of view, it may be naughty, nice, snow, cheer, jolly, or debt. Topping the Christian list has to be joy, hope, peace, and believe.
While those words all have a connection to the Christmas story told in Scripture, we’re leaving out the most common one – holy.
Some form of the word appears 70 times in our Advent devotional guide by J.D. Walt.
Think about it: Christmas is a holiday, which literally means “holy + day” (in Old English). The word, holy, is prevalent in the Old Testament prophecies about the promised Messiah.
This past week we read in Isaiah 35 that the One sent by God will turn the wilderness and desert wasteland into lush gardens with flowing springs of cool water. “And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness.” (Isaiah 35:8a NLT)
Holiness is a common theme in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth – the word shows up three times in Matthew and 10 times in the opening chapters of Luke (many more times than joy, hope, or peace).
In our current sermon series and church-wide emphasis, we have learned that Advent serves as The Christian New Year. So far, we have said this is an occasion for awakening, anticipation and contemplation
But it is also a new year of holiness – like it or not. I say, “like it or not,” because we generally aren’t very fond of the word.
We oftentimes use it as a term of derision: “She thinks she is holier than thou.”
As J.D. Walt points out, it sounds a little bit like “good behavior on steroids” and reminds us an old nun at a Catholic school with a ruler in her hands ready to crack our knuckles if we look like we’re having too much fun.
We generally think of holiness as following rigid do’s and (mainly) don’ts. It’s equated with moral perfection and after all, “nobody’s perfect.”
You may have heard that the biblical word for holiness means “set apart.” God is holy, meaning that He is altogether different from anyone or anything else.
But the notion of us being set apart isn’t very appealing or attractive either, is it? It smacks of Christians in quarantine not wanting to catch the sin virus!
While we may dismiss holiness as something we can never achieve (at best) or something we don’t want (at worst), the Bible claims it is the destiny of every believer.
Early in the process of forming a people for Himself, the Lord told the Israelites, “You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2 NLT)
Notice it is command and expected to be followed. We may dismiss the notion of holiness as “pie in the sky” kind of thinking, but Scripture suggests it is not only possible, but should be our highest ambition.
Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “You were created to be like God, and so you must please him and be truly holy.” (Ephesians 4:24b CEV)
And John describes it this way: “Think how much the Father loves us. He loves us so much that he lets us be called his children, as we truly are … This hope makes us keep ourselves holy, just as Christ is holy.” (1 John 3:1a, 3 CEV)
Did you know that the most common name given to followers of Jesus in the New Testament is “saints?” That word means “holy ones.”
So you and I are called to be holy and it is, in effect, who and what we are.
That being the case, maybe we need a different concept of holiness.
Yes, we are to be separate from the things of the world and set apart from others, but not in a bad way. Our distinctiveness makes us useful in the Lord’s service. As followers of Christ, we are to “give a cup of cold water” to others in Jesus’ name.
Sound familiar? (see Matthew 10:42) That “cold water” represents the life-giving, refreshing Holy Spirit of God.
I think it’s safe to say that folks won’t welcome it if the container is soiled and grungy. Holiness makes us clean and useful for God and His holy purposes.
As J.D. Walt suggests, “What if holiness is not immunity from the world, but the contagion in the world that we want everyone to catch?”
Our supreme example is the Holy One – Jesus. He was without sin and altogether holy, but He still rubbed shoulders with lepers, ate with the despised and forgave sinners. And He inspired others to follow suit and become like Him.
In Isaiah 35, the prophet foretells the coming Messiah and describes him creating a land with a Highway of Holiness running through it. Listen to a description of that place…
The wasteland will rejoice and blossom. Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers and singing and joy! There the Lord will display his glory, the splendor of our God. He is coming to save. And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind and unplug the ears of the deaf. The lame will leap like deer, and those who cannot speak will sing for joy! Springs will gush forth in the wilderness…and will satisfy the thirsty land. And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways… (Isaiah 35 NLT excerpts)
If that’s what holiness is all about, count me in!
And because the Holy One has already come, it’s now a reality. Jesus’ earthly ministry brought a complete reversal of the world’s order.
Sure, it won’t be fully realized until Jesus comes again, but during this time between the two Advents, we can travel the road of holiness.
And the way we get there is not by our own efforts. We’ve all tried to live holy lives, haven’t we? How’d that turn out?
We become holy to the extent that Christ, the Holy One, lives in us. And that happens through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. You cannot be filled with the Spirit of God and remain unholy.
Advent makes it possible for this to be a new year of holiness for each of us. Jesus has come to bring God’s holiness near and now makes it available to all who ask for it and act on it.
As with all aspects of the Christian life, holiness requires a measure of faith. Here’s how Francis Frangipane describes it in his book Holiness, Truth & the Presence of God: “Faith is essential for you must first believe that holiness is possible or you will never attempt to reach it.”
Do you believe? If so, how you going to attempt to reach it?
In our previous sermon series on James, we learned that real faith acts. So, while holiness is primarily God’s work in us, we have a role to play. There are some specific ways to pursue holiness. We learn some valuable lessons from the main characters in the Christmas story.
Our word, holiness, comes from the same Old English root word for “wholeness.” So to be holy is to be the same through and through. But it also means we are wholly God’s – that is, entirely, totally, fully His.
We commonly refer to Joseph, Mary and Jesus as the Holy Family. From their examples, we can identify three aspects of holy, or wholly, living.
1) Complete Obedience
If you and I are going to travel the Way of Holiness, we have to completely and totally obey God – no exceptions … and no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, shows us what that looks like.
An angel appeared to Joseph and told him that his fiancée had become pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit, that she would deliver a child that would be the Savior of the world, and that he should still marry her.
What would you do?
“[Joseph] did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife.” (Matthew 1:24 NLT)
Joseph wholly obeyed God and, as a result, is deemed a “righteous (holy) man.”
If we want to experience holiness we have to follow a similar course of action. So while holiness is more than rigidly following a set of rules, it does involve some rules. God’s standards of behavior are not the world’s standards.
And through obedience to what God and His Word say, we become “set apart.” But it’s worth pointing out that to be holy, we must wholly obey. That is, we don’t get to pick and choose our obedience.
As someone has pointed out, partial obedience isn’t obedience at all; it’s disobedience.
I went to college at the Air Force Academy where we operated under an honor code: “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.”
I still largely live by those principles – I am not a liar nor am a thief, but I must confess, I am a cheater. Lest you judge me, let me explain.
From time to time, I go on a diet to lose weight or be healthier. When I do, I stay close to it … until everyone else goes to sleep. Then I cheat and grab a snack (or two or three …).
When our current church facility was Fusion, I worked out and lifted weights. I’ve been taught the proper method, but sometimes I cheated and broke form. As a result of my cheating, I haven’t always accomplished my health and fitness goals.
Do you ever cheat on your obedience to God and His commands?
We won’t get to where we want to be and where God wants us to be – holy like Him, until we completely and wholly obey.
Let me give you a specific way to travel the Highway of Holiness over the holidays. God’s Word makes it clear, you must forgive others just as God has forgiven you. Are you giving that command your complete obedience or are you cheating a little and withholding it from a friend or family member?
What if you followed Joseph’s example and did exactly as the Lord commands?
Maybe there’s some other area of partial obedience or even total disobedience in your life. Make this a new year of holiness and give God your complete obedience.
2) Comprehensive Faith
Scripture teaches that we are to live by faith, not by sight. Do we? Not entirely.
Most of us live by some combination of faith and sight (probably more sight).
But to be holy (the same through and through), we must live entirely by faith. So our faith must be comprehensive and characterize every aspect of our existence – from beginning to end.
Mary is commonly referred to as the Holy Virgin or Holy Mother. In the birth narratives, she is portrayed as the model of faith. When an angel announced that she was going to have an immaculate conception that would result in the birth of God’s Son, the Messiah and King, she didn’t reply, “No way!” (as most of us would). Instead, she simply responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” (Luke 1:38 NLT)
She didn’t fully understand how everything was going to happen, but she trusted God completely.
We have to ask ourselves, is our faith partial or complete? Particular or comprehensive?
Most of us trust God for the hereafter. In other words, we believe He will take us to heaven. But what about the here and now? Often, instead of trusting God, we tend to rely on what we can do.
If we’re honest, most of us operate very little by faith on a day-to-day basis. So maybe part of the reason we fall short in our pursuit of holiness is because we fall woefully short in living by comprehensive, all-encompassing faith.
As you assess where you are on the continuum of walking by faith or by sight, let me remind you of my favorite definition for true biblical faith from my friend and mentor, Mark Nysewander: “Faith doesn’t begin until we put ourselves in a position where we’re in big trouble if God doesn’t show up!”
How many times do you and I so depend on God that we’d be in big trouble if He didn’t come through?
Do you remember how we felt as a congregation on October 11th, 2018?
With two buildings destroyed and our community in ruins, we knew that we were in big trouble unless God did something to rescue us. So we trusted Him and, since we had so little left, we trusted Him completely.
The result? He showed up and a grand and glorious way! Our church had $111,000 in capital reserves that day. Today, we have $1.2 million plus insurance proceeds. In the past two years, we’ve given away more than ever in our history. All thanks to the way God provided for us in the two years since Hurricane Michael.
In the Apostles’ Creed we refer to “the holy catholic church.” This congregation isn’t perfect, but it is the Holy Lynn Haven UMC and it will continue to be to the extent we exercise comprehensive faith.
How about you? Is there any area where you need to be holy and trust God wholly?
3) Concentrated Love
I think we oftentimes make this holiness thing much more difficult than it has to be. Jesus made it a whole lot simpler by giving us one Great Commandment to follow:
“You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind…[and] love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37, 39 NLT)
Ultimately, life is all about love – loving God and loving others.
So our Methodist founder, John Wesley, described holiness as “perfect love.” Or, as an author I quoted earlier, Francis Frangipane, puts it, “A holy life is a life alive with love, compelled by love, filled with love.”
It’s why marriage is called “holy matrimony.” A husband and wife are set apart for each other but the relationship is made holy through their love for each other.
The best example of holiness is the one whose birth we are about to celebrate, Jesus. As we sing in the beloved Christmas carol: “Silent night, holy night; Son of God, love’s pure light; Radiant beams from Thy holy face…”
In one of this week’s readings, J.D. Walt says that two words in Scripture best describe God: holy and love.
Scripture teaches that “God is love” and “holy is His name.” In Christ these two attributes are brought together and so the Holy One is “concentrated love.” Yes, I stole that phrase from J.D. Walt!
There’s so much more I want to say on this subject but I’ll save it for another day.
If you and I want to be holy as God is holy we must love like God loves. That means we give God and others the best that we have, with no expectations. Isn’t that what God the Father did through Christ the Son?
“This is real love … that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” (1 John 4:10 NLT)
And so Jesus shows us the best way to demonstrate real love is not by giving an expensive gift, but by giving ourselves.
As a parent I now understand how my folks felt when they were still alive. They didn’t care what presents they got from me to open on Christmas. They just wanted me to be there (along with my wife and their grandkids).
Since I knew that they loved me and I wanted to show them that I loved them, I did my best to give them what they wanted for Christmas.
If we want to fulfill God’s command to “be holy,” we just need to make love our aim.
Let’s follow Christ’s example and give ourselves wholly to God and to others.
What can you do, during this special time of the year, to demonstrate concentrated, pure love for God and for those around you?
It’ll be a new year of holiness for us as we allow the holy child of Bethlehem to be born in us and to live in us – today and forever.
Please join me in praying this prayer for holiness…
Our Father in heaven, thank you for these days of Advent and this new year in Christ. Your holiness is filled with love and your love is filled with holiness. Come, Holy Spirit, fill our lives with complete obedience, comprehensive faith, and concentrated love so we can be holy as the Lord our God is holy. Transform this special season into true holy days so that we might become more like Christ – the one who came, is here, and is coming again. Amen.