What picture does the word “Holy” invoke in your mind? Do you see a severe preacher marching down the street with his equally somber wife on their way home to an austere dinner of steamed carrots, raw cauliflower and unsalted watery soup seasoned with nothing but the fire of righteous condemnation burning in their eyes? Perhaps you are assailed by all the bitter memories of sitting through time-warping sermons so boring they filled five minutes with the strain of an hour but went on for hours. Yes, boring, tortuous but at least they guaranteed heaven, or so you told yourself. Why do we associate holiness with actions?The pagans associated holiness with location. They had holy sites in which the physical pressed palms with the metaphysical. These locations were different, elevated and separate in their minds because they were the points of contact with their deities. Abraham and his descendants came from this background and thus were not immune from this thinking as seen by their erection of altars and monuments to mark points of contact with Jehovah.
This wasn’t the case in Genesis 1 where the demarcation between Creator and creation is clear. In the Bible, holy means, separate or distinct and so the Creator is distinct from creation (the pagans did not have such a clear distinction, as far as I know). This distinction is carried on to humans, distinct in that they are made in God’s image. At the serpent’s behest, we decided to blur the distinction between Creator and created and ushered in the breakdown of relationships, both vertical and horizontal.
God bears patiently with His children, never leading faster than they can follow. He worked within the limits of Abraham’s knowledge to bring him from faltering obedience to trusting obedience. Later, God called out ex slaves and forged them into a distinct nation, meeting them halfway by establishing a temple, a point of contact that stayed with them throughout their travels. Thus, the entire camp was holy. Every aspect of life was governed by this holiness in addition to rituals meant to drive the point home.
Alas, the Israelites spent too much time hanging out with pagans and ended up blurring the line between Jehovah and the pagan deities. Pagan gods had very little interest in people’s lives and had to be appeased, thus, the rituals surrounding their worship were meant to alter how the gods’ perception of the people. Jehovah was distinct, he was thoroughly interested in how people live and His rituals were meant to alter the people’s perception of Him. Jehovah sent prophets to point out that He wanted changed characters and not singed flesh:
But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
take God seriously. (Micah 6:8 The Message)
Freed from Babylonian bondage, God’s people again tied God to the temple in Jerusalem and built a system of exclusivity around it. In trying to keep God holy, they inadvertently made Him national property. There were no idols in the temple but there were idols in the mind – God was still national property to be manipulated with sacrifices and His temple became a talisman to ward off political decimation.
Jesus shifted the focus of holiness from location and mere deeds to relationship. After outlining how reconciliation ought to be at first, a matter of several people, he declared that such a situation was to be blessed with his presence (thus, holy):
And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there. (Matthew 18:20 The Message)
However, it was in the discussion with the Samaritan woman that he revealed that this holiness, freed from location, tribe and creed was to be brought about by the Spirit
But a time is coming – and now is here – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23,24 NET)
Whatever rituals or locations you associate holiness with are fine just as long as they point you to true holiness – acting justly, embracing mercy and living with humility, for this world hungers for justice and needs mercy but we are powerless to give these without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. It is my wish that we all may become points of contact.
photo credit: -Cheesyfeet- 7th January 2017 via photopin (license)