Nov 15: Wholly Holy

Welcome to this post for worship on Sunday, November 15, at Digby Baptist Church. Text of the sermon is here, and video of Children’s Time, the Sermon, Holy Communion, and other elements. Other info about this Sunday can be found in the Bulletin (on the Bulletins page). 🙂

(Isaiah 6:1-8  Luke 5:1-10) – J G White – 11 am, Sunday, Nov 15, 2020 – UBC Digby

God is ____. What are the main single words we can use to fill that blank. God is… what?

God is Spirit. God is good. God is Creator. God is One and God is Three. God is love. God is holy.

Holy, Holy, Holy, sings the hymn. Decades ago, many a Baptist Church started every Sunday morning service singing this. It goes all the way back to Isaiah’s vision in chapter six of his prophetic book. 

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts (armies); the whole earth is full of his glory. (6:3)

Our God is a holy God; so said the Hebrews, so say the Christians, through all history. What are we saying? When the spiritual beings, called seraphim, sang ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ that was the ancient Hebrew way to say very holy. Repeat an adjective and it is emphasized. God is not just holy. God is holy, holy, holy! Completely holy. Wholly holy.

What is holiness? What does the word ‘holy’ mean?  Some of you, tell your answer, and I will repeat it for all to hear.

We gain a sense of holiness from the scripture stories. From the Holy Bible. There’s that word again. Something special about this Book, and our God, and the Holy Gospel we have to proclaim. So, we are talking about getting in touch with holiness. Holy is: magnificent and amazing, bright, good, beautiful, special and ‘set apart’ – like nothing else, awe inspiring and fear inspiring, pure, in contrast with impure things

So, God is holy. Far better and far different from us, and all other things. Completely different, or ‘wholly other,’ as the theologians say. This is key to our traditional teaching about God in Judaism and Christianity. God is holy, completely special and good and separate from us. And we are not holy. 

So, we believe in this world, that seems so wrecked and broken a lot of the time, there actually is holiness, pure goodness, above and beyond us. There truly is a God. But this Holy One is like matter to our antimatter; we can’t dare meet up with pure God – we would instantly be destroyed.

Such was the experience of the prophet Isaiah, in Judah, in the 8th century BCE. He has this vision of God, with spiritual beings singing of God’s holiness; and Isaiah is ready to be annihilated, destroyed, vaporized. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (6:5)

This happens regularly in the Bible stories. Notice Peter with Jesus today, facing his sinfulness before this man of miracles. They all have this concept that a mere human cannot dare meet up with God directly; it could mean almost instead death. Yet, amazingly, people like Isaiah survive the holy encounter. 

I keep thinking back to an old hymn in the old hymn books that an old pastor once quoted to me. He called it a true ‘gospel hymn,’ because it explained, in poetry, how we could possibly get right with the supreme Holiness of God. Look at the imagery of this song, it is all about the holiness that we cannot touch.

Eternal Light! Eternal Light!
How pure the soul must be
When, placed within Thy searching sight,
It shrinks not, but with calm delight
Can live and look on Thee.

The spirits that surround Thy throne
May bear the burning bliss;
But that is surely theirs alone,
Since they have never, never known
A fallen world like this.

Oh, how shall I, whose native sphere
Is dark, whose mind is dim,
Before th’ Ineffable appear,
And on my naked spirit bear
The uncreated beam?

There is a way for man to rise
To That, sublime Abode;
An Offering and a Sacrifice,
A Holy Spirit’s energies,
An Advocate with God:

These, these prepare us for the sight
Of holiness above;
The sons of ignorance and night
May dwell in the eternal Light,
Through the eternal Love.

Do we actually think of God as holy, this holy? As holy, holy, holy? So holy we can’t touch, or even come into God’s view? I think there is a lot of personal experience, and hope that people have, that says we can touch holiness. Glimpses of holiness break through all the time. Victorian Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning is famous for this quotation:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

I have a book of prayers for Church services with the simple title: ‘Touch Holiness.’ 

What has your experience of the holy been? When have you seen or been touched by holiness? 

The scriptures tell us that supreme holiness can be touched. We can be welcomed into it. Isaiah himself was welcomed in, with that vision which included a hot, burning coal taken out of the fire in front of God. The hot coal placed upon his lips cleansed him. Now those lips can speak, speak on behalf of Holy God, to an unholy people. 

And our story of Jesus, which is just under the surface in the old hymn I quoted.
There is a way for man to rise
To that, sublime abode;
An Offering and a Sacrifice…

We learn to seek a path to be holy, here and now:

Keep the sabbath holy. (Exodus 20:8)

Take time to be holy

You shall be holy as I am holy. (1 Pet 1:16)

Refiner’s fire, my heart’s one desire is to be holy, set apart for You, my Master…

But is this ever our one desire? Is holiness ever that important to us? I won’t ask for a show of hands for who has aspired, above all else, to live a holy life. What difference does holiness make to our day-to-day lives? How about… what you wear? Your fashion?

Sarah Peel is a stylist and educator in Toronto. She teaches young people about fashion, and founded a couple of organizations that help people learn about fashion, human rights and sustainability. When she works with youth, Sara finds they are very interested in learning about clothing choices. She writes:

Youth are constantly plugged in to social media and pop culture, which influence their clothing choices. At the same time, school teachers help youth to engage with current issues: poverty, equity, climate change and the need to live more sustainably. These challenges are deeply important to today’s youth. And when students realize their collective consumer choices can influence the fashion industry – for the better – they are eager to get on board. [Mosaic, 2019]

Holy choices about what we wear can make a difference in this world. Holy shopping is a reality! 

Holiness is our destiny, with God. We glimpse it here. We get connected. We even shine. ‘I am the light of the world,’ Jesus said, yet also, ‘you are the light of the world.’ Even when we shop, or cook and eat, or build a house, or start an exercise routine, or watch movies and shows, or create artwork: the holiness, the sacredness can shine.

This whole thing is a way of talking about getting life right. Getting right with God. With others. With the earth. With ourselves. How do you respond when holiness touches you?

We shall not be ‘wholly holy’ in this life – though some Christians do teach this is possible. The brilliant mathematician and scientist, Blaise Pascal, became a devout Christian in his short life. Pascal wrote: “Our greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in us some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.” (Pensées)

The Divine touch of holiness in our lives can be incredible. And how we need it! It is the life of God, meeting us, even living in us. ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory,’ as Paul wrote. (Col 1:27) And, to take it further, the Holy Spirit communes with our human spirits, telling us we belong with God. (Rom 8:16)

This is the good news we proclaim. 

Sometimes we proclaim it simply by the holiness that shines through us. 

We are motivated by the possibility of beautiful holiness shining in those we see all around us. 

Thanks be to God.

Servants of Healing

(2 Kings 5:1-14; Luke 5:12-16) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, July 7, 2019 – UBC Digby

Healing: we look for it in so many ways. Healing bodies. Healing hearts and relationships. Healing the sin sick soul. Most of they prayers of you, Church, that I hear out loud, are for the physical healing of people. This is one of our gifts: prayer for healing.

The storytelling of the healing of Naaman, a foreign army commander, or of an unnamed man with leprosy in the time of Jesus, is brief. But some of the details make us wonder. This past week, I have been wondering about the helpers, on the sidelines. The unnamed women and men, back then, who helped the healing happen.  

Do you ever get to be a helper, and guide someone on their healing journey? You are not the healer, but you are a helper? Of course you are.

There are various servants, unnamed people on the sidelines, who play very important roles in the biblical healing stories. God gets credit for the healings, but many humans give assistance.  

So who is the first helper is the story of Naaman?
An Israelite servant girl.

Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.  She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 2 K 5:2-3

She was speaking of Elisha. And so, Naaman goes to Elisha, a prophet of the Hebrew God, for healing.

You and I have times when we get to be humble servants, on the sidelines, pointing the way to the Healer, the Great Physician. Or, pointing out what human to go to, who has the gift of healing.

It is a matter of trust. Trust in the healing power that is available to us. I think of a story I heard again the other day. There was a drought in the land. A church held a prayer meeting, to pray for the rain that was needed. The pastor greeted the people. But he was disappointed. “We are here to pray to the Lord for rain,” he said, “but where are you umbrellas?!”

I think of a pastor friend of mine. In one of her tiny, rural churches a prayer ministry developed. They prayed in earnest, on Sundays, for people who wanted healing. Their prayers were effective! Word spread about the praying and the healing that was happening. They got more and more requests for people for prayer.  And so they prayed more. 

The pastor was so unassuming and humble about this. Perhaps this was a key to their success. She gave the credit to the Lord. She didn’t promote or advertize their small church’s prayer ministry. They simply prayed, and praised God. God used them to bless.

Who is the next helper in the healing of Naaman?
One of Elisha’s co-workers, a messenger.

Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 2 K 5:10

The Army Commander is not happy when the Prophet of Israel does not even come out to meet him, but just sends a messenger, with the instructions for healing. 

I seem to remember going to the dentist, as a kid, and it was my dentist who spent all the time with me.  Just him, cleaning and flouriding and checking every tooth.  Now, I go to the dentist, and most of my time in the chair is with an assistant, a dental hygienist.  

At the end, Dr. So-and-so comes in for the final look, and reports on what the team sees.  

So much healing work is like this. Even Elisha simply sent out a servant to tell the patient what to do.  Perhaps our God likes this team approach best. God’s miracle-workers are not to be superstars, putting on a show and getting attention. Healing work is humble work. And some of the team players are folks like us. We have a message of hope to give someone. Or some good advice. Or some news about a treatment to take. So we give it.

Now, the next servants of healing for Naaman?
The Army Commander’s own servants, who wisely advise their proud, stubborn master.

But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 2 K 5:13

Whether it be in spiritual care or healthcare, there is always good news and bad news to share. For some, the cure seems worse than the disease. And there can be humbling, even embarrassing treatment to take to find a cure. Spiritual health can depend upon submission, confession of sins, admitting one’s need. Any team of healers often needs humble and deeply caring people, to encourage someone to take the help they need to take.  

One of my best friends had a career as a Lab Tech, in the tiny hospital in her small rural town. She took people’s blood, she read their blood pressure, she x-rayed them, the usual things. She is a deeply compassionate person – it is one of her spiritual gifts. Many a person, troubled by their health, or by all life’s circumstances, would be with her at the Lab, and pour out all their troubles to her listening ears, while she poked and prodded them. She spoke with me, from time to time, of those she called the ‘hard luck people,’ those with more than their share of troubles. She was, essentially, a pastor to them, in the Hospital Lab. She helped them, in the midst of their bad news, with a loving heart.  

That is what our ministry is to be, with those who need healing of body, or mind, or soul. Patient with each other, and so good to one another.  

Do not underestimate your own role in bringing healing to people. You do not need the spiritual gift of healing to help them. You do not all need the gift of prayer – though you all must do some praying. You do not need to be skilled and trained. You do not need to do it alone. 

We are a team, with Jesus, the Great Physician.  We are servants of healing.

Abundant Fishing

( Luke 5:1-11) – J G White
11 am, Sun, Feb 10, 2019 – UBC Digby

Let’s just take a few minutes for this fishing story.  Kind of a big fish story – a big catch of fish, anyway.  I wonder what looking back will do for us.

The fishing industry two thousand years ago in the Middle East was surely something altogether different from our fishing today on the Bay of Fundy.  But the basics we can understand. Peter, Andrew, James and John had been out fishing from their boats and got next to nothing. Jesus says, ‘Try again;’ and they do.  They can barely deal with the heap of fish they catch!

Jesus invites these fishermen to join Him: follow and be apprenticed to Him.  Christ tells them they will be fishing for people now. He speaks of things they know well.  They leave everything behind and follow.

We also looked back at Rose Fortune today.  We can imagine what keeping the peace and protecting people’s property involved almost two hundred years ago, on the busy waterfront of Annapolis Royal.  Yet the fishing and shipping business is altogether different now on the ports of the Annapolis Basin.

So surely, in our day, fishing with Jesus for men and women is not the same as it was two thousand years ago.  Or even two hundred years ago, about the time the Baptists started to get established in our area.  

Or just sixty years ago, when Christian Churches were in their hayday here in Nova Scotia.  Many of you were in the giant Sunday Schools then. For instance, our main evangelism will no longer be through children’s Sunday schools.  

For adults, one of our main methods has been to ‘invite them to church.’  Not necessarily an effective way today. I wonder if one new fishing method is to develop small groups that include Christians and non. Get people together to study and learn, or work on a project together.  Before we invite them to come and see how friendly we supposedly are, or hear our great music, our our wonderful Pastor. 😉

Recruiting people into the Way of Jesus today is a challenging venture, as is always has been.  Our fishing methods will be somewhat different from our past ways. There are plenty of fish in our seas now, plenty of people not with Christ.  And I think it is much like having new breeds of fish to catch, so new tools and methods must be used to accomplish the same gospel work.

There can be a new fishery develop.  New fishers of women and men are needed.  We all must keep retraining and retooling for the work.  

And remember, friends, God is still a God of abundance.  The abundant catch of fish recorded here in Luke 5 is but one of so many Jesus stories that inspires us.  Sacred history may repeat itself in this way: our success with Jesus may again come after long nights of what seems like fruitless effort.  And what we end up doing will not be what we expected to be doing when we signed up with Christ!

Maybe some of you are like me.  Slow to learn, slow to transform and change my ways.  Attached to my old ways of counting successes, and cautious about trying new things.  Yet, praise God!, Jesus still calls us.  Calls us slowpokes to follow.  Throw the net out again, maybe over the other side of the boat.  And then, drop the net altogether, and go a new way.