First Trinity Lutheran Church, rural Beatrice, Nebraska
1And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2"Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: 'You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.'" [NKJV]
IN NOMINE JESU
What does it mean to be holy? We tend to think of holiness in terms of being good. When we see someone that has some moral fiber in him or her, we call that person holy. Look at him. He loves his wife and kids so dearly. He's a very holy man. OR: What about her? She volunteers at a soup kitchen and has even given some homeless people shelter from the cold. She's definitely a holy woman. OR: Do you see that guy? He's a pastor. He seems to always be either reading his Bible or praying. So you know he's holy. These are just some examples to show how people tend to assign the characteristic of holiness to someone. More often than not, we, being in the world, note a person's good works as a sign of being a holy person. What this really is is what the Lutheran Confessions call "civic righteousness." These are the good works that a person does and is recognized by his fellow citizens as such. Think about the Boy Scout helping that little old lady across the street. People see that and think that what he did for her was a really nice thing to do. That is a good work in the sight of others—unless she didn't want to cross the street after all…then it was a bad idea.
What we might consider holy—a good work—is rather subjective. Some good works are considered better than others. Some people are thought of as being holier than others…perhaps even "holier than thou." Sometimes those labels are given solely based on what we think of that work or that person. So what or who may be good or holy one day may not be the next.
We are subjective people. What we need is an objective God. As our text for today shows us, God is very objective, and his definition of holiness does not change one iota. What does God require of us to be considered holy? We are to be like Him, for He says, "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy" (v. 2b). As God continues to speak through Moses, He restates His Law. He commands us to keep His Law. He demands that we obey His Law—perfectly! Then we would be holy in the sight of God. To be holy is to be free from sin. Yet who among us is holy? The Lord has commanded us to be holy, for He has spoken, "For I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44a NKJV). The blessed Apostle St. Peter also writes: "But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1 Pet. 1:15-16 NKJV). The Lord has called us to holiness. He has commanded us to be holy, to be set apart to live godly lives to His glory, just as He commanded those who died in the faith before us.
We must each be honest and ask ourselves, Am I holy? Have I set myself apart from the sinful world, so that I would live the life God wants me to live? Have I lived a life free of sin? Have I faithfully kept the Ten Commandments? Such questions like these we would do well to ask ourselves as we prepare to receive the holy things from the Lord's Table, such as what Martin Luther puts forth in his "Christian Questions with Their Answers" in his Small Catechism. We answered these questions already this morning, when we prayed, "O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess to Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment." We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. This is not the way of holiness. By and of ourselves, we are not holy people. We do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We have other gods than the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We misuse His Name, taking it in vain. We despise preaching and God's Word and do not gladly hear and learn it. We dishonor our parents. While most of us have not physically murdered someone, we are guilty of murder in the Lord's eyes by hurting or harming our neighbor in his body, by not helping and supporting him in every physical need, and by our hatred of him. We are guilty of adultery, whether we have engaged in pre- or extra-marital sexual intercourse or even lusted in our hearts. We do not help our neighbor improve and protect his possessions and income, and we even look to get some of what he has for ourselves. We tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, and hurt his reputation; we love to shoot from the lip and wound him, even if he is a fellow Christian, even if he is a member of this congregation! The devil does his best work in the Church, attacking her children, you and me, just as he did to the saints of yore, as he sought to keep them from receiving the holy things with grateful hearts.
You see, the devil does not concern himself with the atheists, devil worshipers, or those who worship false gods. He has them already, though we still pray that the Holy Spirit would bring them to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Anyone who does not worship the one true God—the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—does in fact worship Satan. He is not worried about them. He focuses his efforts on the faithful, just as he worked on those who died in the faith before us, all the way back to the Garden of Eden, when he seduced Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, thereby bringing sin into the world. He wants to get as many of the faithful away from God as possible, to get them—to get us—to despise the holy things of God and, therefore, God Himself. He lusts to bring us from being holy to being heathen. The devil desires that we lack and suffer hunger, as the Psalmist might say, like the young lions, for, as St. Peter writes, our "adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet. 5:8b NKJV).
In the communion liturgy of the early Church, the priest, after speaking a prayer in a low voice, would call the faithful to receive the body and blood of the Lord, saying, "Let us be attentive. The holy gifts for the holy people of God." The congregation, kneeling, would respond, saying, "One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen." What was holy about the gifts was that the Lord made them holy. He set the bread and wine apart, attached His Word to these elements, and made them holy, giving us also His body to eat and His blood to drink. The Hebrew root of the word for "holy" (which our Lord uses in our text) can also mean "to set apart," "to be sacred," or "to be consecrated." In the Lord's Supper, all of these definitions apply. He has set apart this bread and wine and declared it sacred, consecrating it with His very words: "This is My body…This is My blood." What is there in Christ's body and blood? He gives us the holy gifts of the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. When we by faith receive these gifts, we are being made holy, for God Himself has made us holy. He has declared us holy on account of the blood His Son shed on the cross for us and now gives to us in His Supper.
God has made us holy at the font, where the holy Name of Jesus and the sign of the holy cross have been upon our foreheads since the day of our Baptism, having become baptized in and into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Whether you became baptized at this font or at a font at another Trinitarian congregation, whether you became baptized as an adult or as an infant, you received the holy things of God because it is God who makes you holy, for He Himself is holy. In Holy Baptism God has given you the holy things: forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation. He has done so through the application of holy water, water combined with the holy Word of God. He has clothed you, having robed you in the holiness of Christ. He has clothed you with His wedding clothes, so that you may come to the Feast.
Our gracious God continues to give us His holy things in our daily living our Baptism, as "we receive absolution, that is forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven" (Confession I). Confession and absolution is the daily living of our Baptism, which "indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever" (Baptism IV). We lived our Baptism, and received the holy things, this morning as I, in the stead and by the command of Christ, forgave you all your sins in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the same Name into which we became baptized. God makes us holy. He makes us holy, setting us aside to be His holy people, marking us at our Baptism, as "All newborn soldiers of the Crucified Bear on their brows the seal of Him who died" (LW 311:3). He makes us holy, forgiving our sins for His Son's sake. We thank God that He sent His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to be baptized by John in the Jordan River, for the Lord became baptized into His own death—for our sake. There is a wonderful quality about water: it makes us clean. In Holy Baptism, we are brought before God dirty by our sins, and we are washed clean by water and the Word of God; our sins are washed away, for God makes us clean. Before our Lord became baptized, He was clean, for He is holy and sinless. But when He came up out of the water, He was dirty, for He had taken all our sins and the sins of the whole world upon Himself. Why did He do this? Paul writes: "For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). This is what we call the Blessed Exchange! Christ became our sin so that we would appear sinless before our heavenly Father. Christ was forsaken by His own Father so that we would be called children of the heavenly Father. Christ bled and died for us so that we would live. Christ cried from the cross on Good Friday, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" God said to Him at His baptism, "You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased" (Lk. 3:22b). It pleased God the Father to give His one and only Son over to death because He wants us to live…to live with Him in heaven into all eternity. As Paul announces to us in Romans 6: "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). That is why He made us. God did not create us first and foremost so that we would serve Him. He created us to love us, in spite of ourselves. He loves us and forgives us. Our service to Him, and to one another, is the fruit of the faith He has freely given us. These are the holy lives that we get to live, for the Holy Spirit enables us to love one another, just as God has first loved us in Christ!
One day we shall see our Lord's face, but until then we get to behold Him as He comes to us through hidden means: Word, water, wafer, and wine. In a few moments we will behold Him as He comes to us in His body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. We get to taste and see that the Lord is good. We who have confessed the faith confessed at this altar and who, by the Holy Spirit, lead godly lives—holy lives!—will soon receive the holy things given in this holy meal, namely, the forgiveness of sins. And, as Luther teaches us, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also eternal life and salvation. These are the holy things. We are the holy ones, made holy by the blood of the Lamb, who is holy, without blemish or defect. "Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God." God grant this in Jesus' Name and for His sake. Amen.
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen" (Jude 24-25).
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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