Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Indefinable Holiness of God

By S. Michael Durham

Sunday, I started a new sermon series on the holiness of God. God is holy: a simple fact, but not so simple to understand.

Holiness is a perplexing subject for many reasons. Namely, God is indefinable. To define God, you must define holy, and to define holiness is to define God. You’re back where you started – confused – only in addition you now have a headache trying to understand my last sentence.

Holiness is the essence of who God is. Even His attributes cannot be described without the adjective holy. His love is holy; His justice is holy; His wisdom is holy, etc. Do you see the predicament?

In next Sunday’s message (November 30), I will go where angels literally fear to tread. I will try to peer into holiness itself and gain some idea of what the word holy means.

One of the things that stand in the way of our getting an intellectual grip on the word holy is how we use the word in so many different ways. Men call the pope “holy father” (I know the title is supposed to be capitalized, but I just can’t bring myself to do it). The Dalai Lama is called a holy man. And then there is the famous Harry Caray expression, “holy cow!” Some say “holy Toledo!” originated as a sarcastic expression resulting from the high proportion of bars to churches in Toledo, Ohio, in the pre-World War I period (it was a standing joke that you could walk out of a church on one corner and enter a bar at the next). So, from religious leaders to sarcastic expressions, the word holy is used, misused, and abused.

I’m sure that Isaiah the prophet could not have given a very exact theological definition for holiness. But he saw it – he writes of what he saw: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). He saw holiness because he saw God. Yet after seeing holiness, he was still unable to define it.

But there was one thing he could define: he could define what wasn’t holy. His definition of the unholy started with himself. “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips.” Sin became obvious. It was no longer blurred by good intentions. It wasn’t buried under excuses and rationalizations. Sin becomes easily recognized when you see God.

So whether you can define holiness or not, and the safe assumption is that you can’t, it is important to know what isn’t holy. To know what isn’t holy requires an acquaintance with who is.

Surely, understanding the Holy is a quest that will always remain incomplete. However, all that can be known of the Holy defines everything else. Even if we cannot understand Him altogether, what we do know will give understanding to all else.

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