Leading Question: To what extent is “holy” a user-friendly word, either to describe God or our fellow human beings?
In an insightful comment describing matched but contrasting pairs of human traits, the British classicist, Richard Livingstone (1880-1960), makes the following observation
Any attempt to train character is dangerous and must be undertaken with full perception of its danger. Many notes must be harmonized if the full music of the human instrument is to sound: gentleness and courage, boldness and prudence, inquisitiveness and reverence, tolerance and firmness, confidence and humility, stability and freedom. It is a difficult and risky attempt to make a man, and it is tempting to turn aside from the task. But we have only to look round to see the disastrous results of declining it, as, for the most part, we have hitherto done. Richard Livingstone, Atlantic Monthly, 1946.07 and 1996.07
- For this lesson, the crucial pair is “inquisitiveness and reverence.” To what extent is it clear whether one is to approach God with “inquisitiveness” or “reverence?”
- Stories of fatal danger. Some famous biblical stories illustrate God’s destructive holiness: Mt. Sinai (Exod. 10); Uzzah and the ark (2 Sam. 6); Elisha and the two she-bears that mauled the 42 boy (2 Kings 2).
- Stories of non-fatal danger. Other stories reveal that those who came in close contact with divine holiness were surprised that they survived: Hagar (Gen. 16:13); Jacob (Gen. 32:30); Israel’s leaders on Mt. Sinai (Exod. 24:11); Israel at Sinai (Deut. 5:22-33). The last passage bristles with tensions, for it reveals that the people knew they had survived a close call, but didn’t want to risk it again. They also believed Moses could handle God’s presence even if they couldn’t. Before he returned to Egypt, Moses had experienced God’s presence in a mark way at the burning bush. He was commanded to remove his shoes because the ground was holy (Exod. 3:1-6). Is taking off one’s shoes still an effective response to divine holiness today?Question: How is the balance in our day between fear and acceptance when we come into God’s presence? Are we too casual or too fearful, or both? Will different temperament types respond differently to the threat/promise of God’s presence?
- God’s holiness as a cleansing agent: Isaiah 6. Is it possible in our day to experience the exhilarating sense of empowerment and cleansing that Isaiah felt when he had been touched by the fiery coal at the hand of an angel?
- New Testament ambivalence: 1 John 1:1-4 and Luke 6:1-8. Peter was driven from the presence of Jesus by an overwhelming sense of holiness in his presence. Yet 1 John 1:1-4 celebrates the fact that being in Jesus’ presence allowed us to be in God’s presence. The hands-on contact with deity was a special gift of God to be celebrated. How is that tension lived out in our day?
- Adoration and Inquisitiveness: No easy answer. Given the wide variety of examples in Scripture, how can we address the diverse aspects of holiness in our day?
- Holiness as something to be coveted? Generally the word “holy” is not a generally attractive word in our culture. Even in Jesus’ day, the idea of holiness implied separation – like the priest and Levite who did not wish to contaminate themselves with the man who had been beaten and robbed on the Jericho road. Only the “unholy” Samaritan came to the stricken man’s aid (see Luke 10:25-37). Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount warned about attempting to show off our piety (Matt.6:1-6). Yet in the same Sermon, Jesus said that we should be like a light and like a city built on a hill – highly visible, in other words. How does one put those two together?
- The path to human holiness. Given Jesus’ warnings in the Sermon on the Mount, these two questions may be difficult to discuss, though perhaps they should be taken to heart:
Ellen White (1827-1915): Those who do not learn every day in the school of Christ, who do not spend much time in earnest prayer, are not fit to handle the work of God in any of its branches, for if they do, human depravity will surely overcome them and they will lift up their souls unto vanity. – Testimonies to Ministers, 169
Eva le Gallienne (1899-1991) “People who are born even-tempered, placid and untroubled – secure from violent passions or temptations to evil – those who have never needed to struggle all night with the Angel to emerge lame but victorious at dawn, never become great saints.” The Mystic in the Theatre: Eleanor Duse (1965).