Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Holy? Yes! Emmanuel? Yes!

I hope that all of you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and that your hearts are gearing up for a joyous, Christ-filled Christmas! We were able to spend part of Thanksgiving with my folks and take our traditional three-generation Christmas season picture at the Carmel bakery/coffee shop we have been taking it at for six years now. Many of you will remember it from previous years (some are here and here), and I'll share this year's for those who might enjoy seeing it . . .

Sunday I concluded a sub-series I began on holiness back in May. It is part of a larger "Rumble Strips" series I have been doing which found its heart in Ephesians 4:11–12 where it says pastors are called to equip the church for the work of ministry (which I take to mean, not just fill their heads with knowledge and no insight into its application in our daily lives and work). In this series, after I teach on a basic tenet of our faith—some statement of faith most Christians would readily agree on and even declare to others—I then develop some "Rumble Strip" questions that help us detect if we are staying centered on that path, or starting to veer toward the shoulder ("rumble strips" are the intentional marks in asphalts along the shoulder or in advance of cautions that make a sound warning drivers they are hitting them).

This Sunday the first part of the basic faith statement I concluded teaching on and developing questions for was, "God is holy" Pretty basic, pretty Biblical. As we unpacked "holy" we saw at the core of the word is much more than simply He "does good" or He "doesn't do bad." Rather, at its core, "holy" means separate, set apart. God is holy—the Old and New Testaments reveal the cry around the throne is, "holy, holy, holy." His other character traits find their majesty in His holiness. Time finds its origin in Him. Right and wrong find their definition in Him. He doesn't run parallel to anything else that equally co-exists, all things find their beginning in Him. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. He is holy . . . set apart . . . separate. In Him is light and there is no darkness at all.

Yellowstone National Park.
How holy is God? Ask David who, even in his "religious" effort to bring the ark to Jerusalem got casual with God's directions and did it his own way and saw a man die because he made common (profane) a holy God by doing it man's way and not God's. Ask Herod who was consumed by worms because He allowed a glory to rest on Him that should have been on God. Ask those who will experience the judgment of God when His wrath is tread out some time in the future.

In God's holiness is the very core of the gospel. Why is there a gap between God and man that is too vast for us to cross with any self effort or "goodness" or religious deeds of our own? Because God is holy, separate, set apart . . . and between Him and us is a gap so wide that we can not fathom it because we hold onto some semblance of belief that we are good on our own, and in doing so reveal we understand little about what it truly means that God is holy (I include myself it this). Throughout the Bible when men got a glimpse of God revealed—God's holiness—they cried out as lost, fell down as if dead, cried for Him to leave them, or were killed. If we hold any hope or idea that we can cross the gap between a holy God and ourselves by our own effort we don't understand holy.

And yet, in that, we find the awe—the absolute stunning awe—of Christmas. Because only in God could the two words, "holy" and "Emmanuel," be used of the same person. Holy, which means set apart and separate. Emmanuel which means God with us. Have you ever thought of what a mind blowing contradiction those two words are? Yet, in God, they are both true! The holy God became one of us, to make a way across the gap for us, so that we could be reconciled with Him and joined with Him as His sons and daughters, in love, for all of eternity. "Behold . . . I bring you good news of great joy . . ."

One of the final Rumble Strip questions I asked believers about the truth that God is holy was whether in our understanding of God's nature, love, and relationship with us we are too Emmanuel or too holy. The temptation is to go too far to one side or the other.

1. Too Emmanuel. I recently read a western novel in which it portrayed a preacher at a funeral talking about hell to a crowd pretty clearly unrepentant and not Christ followers. Albeit the preacher was created by the author to be very insensitive and wrathful in his delivery, the irony was that while the author made him out to be a jerk later in the story there was a "good guys go to heaven" funeral, and as Christmas fell he gave pages to telling the Christmas story and people commenting how much a better message that all was then the first preacher. I found myself thinking, "Isn't that so common? We love the God with us part, the Savior part, the baby in the manger part, but don't want to hear or tell about the whole reason for it—that eternal separation from God is real and that God is holy and in Him is no darkness and we are separated from Him, and that God makes it clear that man is without excuse!" I love that God loves me. I love that He'll never leave me. I love His promises for me. But if I get too cozy with that and then casual with my life choices and priorities I make common, or profane, His holy name and nature, and I mock the cross that displays His holiness and His love for me.

2. Too Holy. We can be so aware of God's holiness, and afraid of God, that we see Him as this stern and ferocious being separated up above and just waiting for us to mess up so He can hurl lightning bolts of wrath and hell upon us. We can see Him as holding our every mistake, and be terrified to approach Him or unable to believe He could love us or be with us or be a "Abba, Father" to us. Yes, He is holy, but He is also Emmanuel, and if we don't realize that we miss the whole point of the Gospel—to reconcile us to Him, to remove our alienation, to adopt us as His beloved children, and to never be separated from us again.

Holy? Yes! Emmanuel? Yes! And doesn't Christmas take on stunning joy and awe in light of those two truths that could only find their meeting place in Jesus? I hope you have an amazing Christmas season reflecting on, and sharing with others, the love of God found in His Son—the holy One who came to us because we could not go to Him.   —Erick

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