Sermon: The Path of Holiness

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Preached on 10th February 2008
by Mr David Simpson

The Path of Holiness

 

I've always liked words: reading them (don't get as much chance to do that these days), saying them (was probably a bit noisy at school, so my wife would say, and my teachers ‘The constant questions'), listening to a play on the radio, listening to a comedy programme - recent convert to Radio 7, BBC digital station, and if I have work to do at night that will be on in the background.

 

I also love it when people use the wrong words or phrases; best when they are only slightly wrong or not quite understood.

"If you can't stand the heat, get off the bus".

"Don't try to pull the sheep over my eyes".

The gloriously complicated "The proof of the cake is in the eating and I want to have my slice".

"He's certainly got all his buttons screwed on".

"Well I don't know off the back of my hand".

At church: will have to call a "Had Oc" committee.

"Oh look; the government"

 

In our worship today we are thinking about a word which is perhaps often misunderstood, even within the church; "Holiness".  As a church throughout Lent we are following the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland course "Pathways of Prayer" which is being run in conjunction with the BBC.  For the first week of Lent, this week, the subject is "The Path of Holiness", which, when I saw that this was my week, I didn't think sounded particularly promising.

 

The word ‘holy'.  What connotations does it carry with it?  Someone who's a bit too perfect?  Someone who is ‘holier than thou'? - a little self-righteous?  I turned to the dictionary and saw, as part of the definition "4. used in trivial exclamations ‘holy cow, holy mackerel, holy Moses, holy smoke'; the sorts of things which Robin (as in Batman) used to say - almost a cartoon sort of word.  But then I read on; 1. Morally & spiritually excellent or perfect (Hmmm!) 2. Belonging to, devoted to, or empowered by God..." and that sounded a bit more like it.

"Belonging to devoted to, or empowered by God" as Christians on a journey, what is there not to like about that explanation, that definition?

 

Christ has called each one of us to follow him.  To love the things that he loves.  To display the characteristics which he displayed.  To be obedient children of our heavenly Father.  In this way we are all somewhere along the path of holiness.  Some of us may just have begun that walk.  Others may be running along it at full tilt, whilst others may be struggling to see where the pathway leads next.

 

Going to think about what this path of holiness might mean to each of us; look at our desire for holiness, the need to surrender to God & the call to obedience which results.

 

  1. Our Desire for Holiness
    I read about the author Susie Hilsman describing how she watched her neighbour as he weeded his flower beds, his 4 year old son shadowing his every step.  When the father sat down to take a break so did the son.  The father crossed his legs; the son did too.  Dad rested his arms on his legs & the boy did likewise.  They sat side by side surveying their work and it was obvious that they just enjoyed being together.

    She said "As I watched that precious moment I thought ‘Why don't I care that much about being like my heavenly Father?' - I suppose it's because being like my Father requires holiness - something I don't fully understand.  It describes God and yet he desires that it describe his children as well.  In my relationship with God I have always felt that holiness dangled just out of reach, like a spiritual carrot.  It looked good and I wanted it, but to live like it seemed impossible this side of heaven.  Yet God commands us to be holy now".

    Our path as Christians starts and continues with love. 1 John 4:19 says "We love because he first loved us".  It is this initial realisation that we have when we perhaps first appreciate the enormity of that belief.  We love God who loved us before we were created, before we knew that we were loved by him.

    Elsewhere in John's Gospel we read "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father".  By studying Jesus' life in the Bible and asking the Holy Spirit to teach us, we are led in turn to see what we should be like.  The American minister, Bill Bright, is convinced that the greatest obstacle to pursuing holiness is simply an ignorance of who God is. "If people don't understand how loving, holy, powerful and wonderful God is they obviously will not want to love him.  If they don't love him they won't want to be like him". In the area of desire we can be filled with a longing to be like our Father if we will let him do so.

  2. The Need to Surrender to God
    When I got my car last year it came with a SATNAV system.  For those unfamiliar with the term, this is a satellite navigation system which, when switched on, can tell you exactly where you are on a map on your dashboard.  The kids love it!  A small arrow tracks the car along the road, you can zoom out and in, it shows petrol stations and other places of interest to the curious motorist.  It's principle role however is to enable you to put in your destination details at the start of your journey and then for it to provide you with directions to get.  Ingenious, simple, you might think.  Well, that would be the case I'm sure if I had got round to reading the instructions as yet.  Twice in the last 2 weeks I have found myself, how can I put this? Lost - because I had assumed that with my pretty coloured electronic map I would easily find where I was going to.  At some stage today I will get them from the glove box and study them.  If in doubt, read the instructions!

    At some point in our Christian journey we are led to a place where we are called to give up going in our own direction, under our own steam.  We are called to read the instructions, to look to the one we profess to follow; to surrender ourselves.

    In our Gospel lesson from Matthew we hear of Jesus visiting this kind of place when he comes to the Garden of Gethsemane.
    "He took Peter and the 2 sons of Zebedee along with him and he began to be sorrowful and troubled.  Then he said ‘I am overwhelmed with sorrow.  Stay here and keep watch with me.'  Going a little further he fell with his face to the ground and prayed ‘My Father, if it is possible may this cup be taken away from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will'."

    ‘Yet not as I will, but as you will'.  This shows Jesus as a real living person.  One who had fears about his immediate future, as we all do.  But who was prepared to surrender his wish not to have to duffer death at God's hands.  He was in effect saying that he trusted God, because he believed that God knew what was best for him.
    On another occasion, Jesus was praying "Sanctify them by the truth, your word is truth" he said. ‘Sanctify' - there's another good churchy word.  The Greek word for ‘sanctify' is ‘hagiazo' meaning ‘to make holy'.  Jesus was praying that we should be ‘made holy' by the truth, God's word.

    At the point where we are prepared to surrender more of ourselves to God then we leave that place bearing a slightly greater resemblance to our Father.

  3. The Call to Obedience
    All who have brought up children, and all who have been children will recognise the tension to be found in the word ‘obedience'.  Parents want to bring up children who will feel loved, will hopefully be confident, prepared to speak up for themselves and who will ask questions.  But woe betide those same children when they don't do what their parents want them to do.
    ‘Why can't you do as you're told?' I heard myself say to Claire the other night.  What I was saying was ‘Be obedient; do as I say'.

    None of us are particularly good at being obedient.  We don't find it easy to take orders.  We like to be ourselves, to be individuals, often to think that we know best!

    Jesus said elsewhere in John's Gospel "If anyone loves me he will obey my teachings".
    We are given in the Bible a blueprint for our lives as Christians and, as importantly, the means by which we can evidence the love of God which we experience in our lives to those with whom we live and work and play.

    In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus not only spoke about the demands of love, he revealed the love about which he spoke.  In him we see the sermon come alive.  It is beyond our ability apart from the power of him who gave it.  This is where Christian faith turns in to Christian Gospel.  The sermon declares what will happen when the love which is of God is focussed in a situation.  That love has been revealed to us in Christ who shared our life and invites us to share his, in obedience.  If we allow him to live in us, we allow him to reveal himself in and through us.  It is a description of what will happen when men and women, boys and girls really have the love of God in their hearts.

    The problem of this ‘Path of Holiness' is however that it can still sound very ‘other-worldly' and not really for the likes of ordinary Christian people.

    Robert Elsberg
    "I am now writing a book to be called The Saint's Guide to Happiness.  I am trying to make the point that the aspiration to holiness is not an aspiration to become a stained glass window or to have people praying to you for miracles.  It is a call to be more in touch with the inner depths of your existence - to be more awake, more fully alive to the person you were created to be.  This might involve giving more time to prayer or contemplation. But that is not the holy part of our lives -  that is so that we can be more mindful in our work, in our relationships, and all the daily routines of life.  Those are the real area of holiness.  We spend much of our time imagining what we will do once we have finished all the chores and tasks at hand.  Holiness is largely a matter of waking up to the presence of God in the present moment, the moment in which we are actually living.
    How can we begin this process?  I think one of the first things to do is to think of my present situation as the context of my call to holiness.  For instance, I am married and have 3 children.  My path is not a monastery or a hermitage, though there are times when that seems very attractive.  How am I called to find God in the midst of the chaos of children doing their homework, dishes that have to be washed, floors that have to be swept?  Well for one thing you realise that you don't have to be in a special place to find occasions for enlarging your capacity for patience, humility, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, generosity.  A large family is an ideal place for this - better than a monastery in some respects.  The difference is that we are not generally trained to perceive this."

    In our journey as Christians, we are called to a path of holiness, just as Christ himself was.
    Through love we are enabled to discover that same desire to be more like God.
    Through the giving up of self, we are led to the ways that he would have us walk.
    & through the daily acts of obedience to God and his ways, our lives can be transformed both to ourselves and to those with whom we live.

    May we be more fully alive to be the people God wants us to be, both today and in the days ahead.

    DJ Simpson 10/02/08

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