|A Meditation for All Hallows Eve|
|Written by Toby Sumpter|
|Monday, 31 October 2011 13:58|
Perhaps we should consider the command to be holy "as I am Holy" as a manifestation of the haunting of God. What is holiness?
Holiness is usually defined as being “set apart” or “separated” to God. Of course, holiness is a big deal in the Old Testament. Mistaking holiness could mean instant death. That which is holy belongs to God. Holiness is fiercely guarded by God. Holiness is dangerous. Holiness is God’s presence, and as soon as sin and death enter the world, Adam and Eve are escorted out of the garden and menacing cherubim brandish a flaming sword behind them. They are outside of the presence which is now a fiercely guarded fortress. Later, the Levites wield swords and spears, new angelic guardians of the tabernacle and temple, ready to strike down any breach in security, constantly reminding Israel that they are outside of the presence of God, outside of the holiness, outside of the fortress. And in heaven, the fiery seraphim guard the heavenly presence crying out like air raid sirens, “Holy! Holy! Holy! is the Lord God of Armies.” Warning! Stand back!
It is true that in the Old Covenant God’s people were mercifully drawn near, and the power and glory of God’s holiness often delivered them from their enemies (e.g. Ex. 3:5, 15:11). But the swords were still pointed out towards them and just as often, His people could make a wrong move and be devoured by His holiness: consumed in fire (Num. 11:1), swallowed by the earth (Num. 16:32), bitten by flaming serpents (Num. 21:6). God would always relent from His anger, but it was a dangerous business being so close to the entrance of the presence, so close to the fortress of His holiness. Caked in sin and enslaved by guilt and the powers of death, it was dangerous to be near the Holy Presence. And the earthquakes and lightening and thunders and trumpets sounded their deafening, haunting drones constantly warning them, constantly reminding them that they were just outside the presence. And anyone who got too close was shot dead by archers or stoned (Ex. 19). God’s presence is a terrifying fortress.
The rituals of the Old Covenant tended to underline this terror. Animals were slaughtered by the thousands and blood was everywhere, covering furniture and altars, and the Levites and priests were constantly stained in blood from the butchery, like warriors in battle. The idea was always to “draw near” to the presence, to come near to the holiness, but the tabernacle could have easily seemed like the original haunted house, filled with thick, smoky darkness, lit by the wavering candles of the holy presence. Even at the door of the Holy Place where Israelites were commanded to appear, the panicked bleating of the lambs smelling the blood of their slaughtered cousins was constant. It was hardly comforting to know that the God of this holiness viewed the screaming beasts as pictures of you. Here, put your hands on the head of this lamb, listen to it scream and gurgle as the Levite slices open his throat. This is you, my son. This is my holiness. You are my holy people. Even with the reassurances of the priest, and the promise that the smoke was rising to God as a pleasing aroma, it would have been hard to shake the feeling that this God was a living, seething volcano.
When God thundered and spoke and told Israel to “be holy as I am holy,” what did that mean? How would the average Israelite have heard that? Sometimes the expectation was explicit. Sometimes it clearly meant that they could not participate in the acts of sexual deviance of the surrounding nations. Sometimes it had to do with what the Israelites ate or their calendar or how they treated their parents. But why all the smoke and fire? Why all the thunder and trumpets and blood? Why is holiness a place of slaughter, a place of fire and smoke and fear and trembling? If holiness is so dangerous, so awful, what would it mean to be holy?
Clearly, the story of holiness does not end there. As Matthew’s gospel begins, we hear that a young woman is pregnant with a child by an invisible Being called the Holy Spirit. Despite our engrained Christmas cheer, it should be pointed out that with the dark, haunted background of the Old Covenant, this could easily sound like a horror story. An angel in Luke explains: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Lk. 1:35). Who is this holy ghost? What kind of Halloween weirdness is this? And an Angel of the Lord has the audacity to appear to Joseph and try to calm him down by explaining: “do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:20). The smoking, thundering, seething, shrieking volcano has made a baby. I’m sure Joseph was relieved.
The demons actually seem a bit more rational. They scream and try to warn everyone: “Let us alone! What have we to do with you, Jesus of Nazareth? Did you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (Mk. 1:24, Lk. 4:34) They know that the holiness of God is haunting, destructive, fierce, a terrifying fortress. John warned the people about Jesus as well: “I indeed baptize you with water, but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Lk. 3:16). Given the Old Covenant context this sounds more like a threat than a comforting promise. And John wasn’t your average, chirpy youth pastor type to begin with. He seems to have been a bit of a screamer himself. “Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (Jn. 1:33).
But then the Holy One comes. The demons shriek and fall down in fear, and there are some who are afraid of Him. He can be fierce and angry, but He brings healing and restoration with Him. He speaks of a Kingdom, a way of life, a people that will be safe even against the assaults of Hell. But Jesus is a destroyer. He promises the destruction of the old Holy Place. That fortress has become a haunt of demons and Pharisees. It will be surrounded by armies and burned with fire and there will be shrieks and blaring trumpets in the wind. But this is too much for the Jews, too threatening, too scary and so they kill Him. And as the Holy One dies it becomes dark in the middle of the afternoon, and there is a great earthquake and He cries out as He gives up His ghost.
But Jesus promised to give His people the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He promised to make His people holy in a way they had never known. Would it hurt? Would it burn? Would it kill them? Jesus says that the Spirit will actually comfort them. The Spirit of Holiness will give them peace. The holiness that comes from this Spirit will teach them what to say when they stand before tribunals. And after Jesus is raised from the dead and ascended into the heaven, He sends the Spirit-storm down from heaven. But instead of destroying the disciples, instead of turning the upper room into a crematorium, they all shone like the burning bush, aflame but not consumed. They all become holy ground, places of God’s Most Holy Presence. And then they spoke: they thundered with their voices, like angels with trumpets announcing to the nations that the Holy God had become a Holy Man and dwelt among us. This Holy Man had destroyed the power of sin and death by the shedding of His own blood and is now enthroned forever.
Those who heard and believed were baptized with this fire as well, and they began to live this holiness together: continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, breaking bread from house to house, in prayers, sharing their goods and possessions, having all things in common, giving to those in need (Acts 2:41-47). They became a sanctuary together, a fortress, the place of God’s holy presence. But where are the screams? Where are the shrieks? Where is the danger? Where are the gleaming swords, the smoke and fire and trumpets and blood? They are outside. They are outside of the presence – where they have always been (cf. Rev. 22:14-15). But this new holiness is still terrifying: it is the aroma of death to those who are perishing. They hate it, and they seek to destroy it. They burn the new holy ones, they cut off their heads, they pierce them with swords, they crucify them. But the saints overcome through the blood of the Lamb. The darkness is pierced by the light even as the darkness attacks it.
In the New Covenant, after sin and death have been dealt with, the Spirit of Holiness is poured out on all flesh, enveloping believers in the Presence of God. In other words, the holiness of God, the presence of God is what makes being human safe. There is no safe place outside of the presence of God. To be outside of the presence of God is to be at the mercy of chaos and violence and burning and smoke. But the holiness of God is His fortress. The holiness of God has always had flaming swords facing outwards. The holy presence of God is a sanctuary, a safe place, a fortress.
In the New Covenant, the Kingdom, the Christian Church is the new Eden, the new Holy Place, the dwelling of God Himself by His Spirit. God Himself defends and protects His people, and they are now inside. They are inside the holiness, inside the presence. Now they are haunted with the presence themselves. And to the darkness and to those still in their sins, the Church and all the saints are like angels, saints, holy ones burning with the fiery presence of their Holy God, wielding the flaming sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God.
To be holy is to be “set apart” and “separated” to God, but more specifically, it is to be safely inside the presence of God, safely within His body, safely within His family. Now we are part of that holy space fiercely defended by God. Now we are inside the fortress, and His angels defend us. And as His body, His house, His Holy Place we defend and protect one another. And we cry Holy! Holy! Holy! We claim and defend all those redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, and we invite the world into the presence, into the sanctuary, into the mighty fortress of His holiness.
|Last Updated on Monday, 31 October 2011 14:06|