In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
– Isaiah 6:1-5
I love feeling close to God. Maybe you know it, that cozy feeling of intimacy, when in prayer or worship you feel so happy and at peace that it’s like God is giving you a big hug. I believe that this intimacy with God, this sense of being fully known and fully loved, and of knowing God in a deep and deeply personal way, is a key part of God’s plan in Jesus. Through Jesus, God reveals his nature so clearly. Both by reading about his ministry and sacrifice on the cross in the Bible and by listening to the promptings of his Spirit in our hearts, we come to know Jesus and, by knowing Jesus, we get a clear understanding of who God is and the depth of his love for us. On top of that, Jesus shows us how to relate to God as a caring and tender father. Isn’t that awesome? This invitation to closeness with God is one of the best parts of being a Christian.
Unfortunately, intimacy with God can obscure one of his defining features: holiness.
To be holy means to be set apart as sacred. When we say that God is holy, it means that he is so elevated and pure that his nature is actually alien to every created thing – including us. Not only do we not have a right to approach God as an intimate, but there is a real sense in which we are not, in our human nature, able to approach him at all. God’s holiness is emphasized throughout the Bible. Moses is told to remove his shoes before the burning bush because even the dirt surrounding God’s presence is holy ground. The prophet Isaiah cries out in fear after being given a vision of the Lord because when a man – a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips – looks on the face of God, he should surely die. In fact, a key reason that Jesus was crucified is that the Jewish religious authorities of his day viewed him as a brazen blasphemer. Not only did Jesus have the nerve to violate the sacred rest of the Sabbath by healing the sick, but he also had the gall to call himself God’s own son! What mortal man can claim that kind of relationship to the Living God, the Holy One? Daring to utter such heresy could only lead to one punishment: death.
When we insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, the humans and their appetites are “naturally” good, that we are capable of doing what is best for ourselves without God’s help, we diminish God’s holiness by implying that we are just as righteous and pure as he is. For those who dismiss disciplines like fasting, chastity and secrecy as relics of an oppressive and unenlightened age, insisting on God’s holiness may seem obnoxious, even offensive. However, it is only by recognizing God’s purity and power as Lord of Creation, only by grasping his absolute faithfulness and goodness and justice, only by grasping our own weakness, egotism and inconsistency, that we can understand the absolute revolution that Jesus Christ represents.
As men and women, we overeat. We lose our temper. We curse at drivers on the freeway. We put our own lusts and selfish desires above obedience to God or service to others. Even babies, innocent in so many ways, take what they want and hit, bite and scratch to keep what they have. Acknowledging God’s holiness means acknowledging that we aren’t, in ourselves, good enough for him or good – period. It means recognizing that there is a life beyond our dust and dirt that we, in our humanity, cannot attain. What, after all, do we – people of unclean lips – have in common with the purity and perfection of our Creator?
Nothing but Jesus. In him, humanity and divinity meet in an intimate embrace. He is the Word in whose being we have our foundation and he is the Light who enlightens every single person on the earth – even you and me, with all our flaws. He invites us into God’s holiness by planting deep in us the Holy Spirit, which takes us beyond the fully human into the power and presence of God. Out of that Holy Spirit – a Spirit fully accessible to each of us, but whose essence is that of a holy God rather than an earthly man – flows the supernatural gifts of prophecy, of healing, of effective prayer, of discernment.
Each of us, even those who totally reject God, has a shadowy version of many of God’s traits: our measure of strength shows us God’s awesome power, our desire for fairness suggests God’s perfect justice, our impulse to tenderness hints at God’s tremendous love. However, holiness is God’s alone. He calls us to share in his holiness, but we can only be holy in proportion to our obedience to God and our trust in him. As we yield our will to his, we will become more careful with our words and thoughts, more aware of our dress and manner, more conscious of how we eat and drink, turning all elements of life to God’s glory. That is, we will become more and more distinct from a world that rejects the very idea the sacred and set apart. Paradoxically, the holier we become, the more we respect God’s holiness – and the more we can experience the precious intimacy of his love.
Jesus himself insists that we can approach God with “Dad” (Abba) on our lips: we can boldly ask him for what we need and know that he will provide. But let us never use the closeness we have with our Father as an excuse to deny God the reverence and obedience that he is due. Let us instead proclaim, like the seraphim, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!”