The Holy God

Our theme this evening is the Holy God. God is holy. But what are the implications of that for us? To answer that, I want us to look at Hebrews 9:1-14. You can find that on p1206 in the bibles that are in the pews. But first let me take you back to your childhood and test your knowledge of classic children's literature. There is a particularly poignant moment in 'The Wind in the Willows'. Rat and Mole are a long way from home. They are traipsing through the dark night. I quote:

a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as from a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way. They plod on through the pitch dark, Rat up ahead, Mole dragging behind, so Rat did not notice poor Mole when suddenly the summons reached him, and took him like an electric shock He stopped dead in his tracks, his nose searching hither and thither in its efforts to recapture the fine filament, the telegraphic current that so strongly moved him. A moment, and he caught it again; and with it this time came recollection in fullest flood. Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! But, though Mole calls him to stop, Rat does not hear and presses on, afraid that snow is coming. Poor Mole stood alone in the road, his heart torn asunder, and a big sob gathering, gathering, somewhere low down inside him With a wrench that tore his very heartstrings he set his face down the road and followed submissively in the track of the Rat.

And he catches up with Rat, and eventually they pause to rest. But Mole can stand it no longer.

The sob he had fought with so long refused to be beaten. Up and up, it forced its way to the air, and then another, and another, and others thick and fast; till poor Mole at last gave up the struggle, and cried freely and helplessly and openly, now that he knew it was all over and he had lost what he could hardly be said to have found.

What do you make of that? Maybe your hard and cynical and sophisticated adult heart simply sneers slightly at such sentiment. OK, maybe I have been reading too many books to my young daughters. But generations of children have been touched by that. Why? Isn't it because in a childish way it captures the human predicament? There is within us a deep yearning for a half-forgotten home. But we are in the dark, not knowing how to get home, sensing only that we are getting further and further away. So where is that home? Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the fifth century, prayed a famous prayer which surely got it right:

Lord, our hearts are restless til they find their rest in you.

Home is where we are at rest. The struggle is over. We belong. We are loved. And ultimately there is only one home for all of us, and that is with God. Every other home that we have is provisional and in the end unsatisfying. Deep down, we remain restless. We are tempted away by other places that seem to promise more. For a while, maybe a long while, although they never deliver what they promise, we keep after these rival attractions, hoping that they will satisfy. But the day comes when we catch that scent in the air. What was all but forgotten, we half remember. Other enticements call us on, away from God. But the call of our true home, the call of God, will not go away. And we get to the point where we realise that what we really want is to go home. We need to get back to God. The question is, how? You see, we have a problem. And that problem can be summed up in those three words we began with. God is holy. What does that mean? It means that there is a great gulf fixed between us and God. There is a great gulf between us and home. As we stumble about in the dark, we will never be able to find our way home. Even if we catch the scent and begin to try and head in God's direction, we will simply find ourselves at the edge of an infinite precipice. God is beyond our reach. We will never make it home. Strangely enough, our only hope is to realise that. The gulf between us and the holy God is infinite and impassable by us. Now, the first 10 verses of Hebrews 9 are making the point that in the Old Testament, God is teaching us that lesson. The Israelite religious ritual was the highest form of religion ever known to man. Unlike all the false paths and idolatries of the nations, this religious practice was God-given. God commanded it, in pain-staking detail. He commanded the Israelites to follow those instructions until further notice. And further notice, as it turned out, would not come for another 1500 years. That's a lot of religious practice. That's a lot of sacrifices. And what was it all for? It was a very forcible way of making the point that it simply didn't work. Religious practice does not get us home. Not even if we do it for 1500 years - which is not an option available to most of us, who have a rather more limited life expectancy. And not even if it is God-given religious practice. The gulf between us and the Holy God will never be crossed this way. Let's take a closer look at these verses. And let me first draw your attention to the second half of verse 5, which may come as some relief to you:

But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.

Like the writer to the Hebrews, we cannot pore over every detail. But then, we don't need to. The basic points are clear. The first point follows from verses 1-5 and it is this which is our first heading. First, THE TABERNACLE AND ITS MOST HOLY PLACE WERE NOT GOD'S HOME These first five verses describe in outline the location which was the heart of Israelite religion. This was the tabernacle, which basically means tent. This tent had been set up first in the wilderness after the Israelites had been rescued from Egypt. It was made after a blueprint given to them by God through Moses, even down to which curtain fabrics they should use. This tent was later replaced by a series of rather more solid and expensive temples, but the principle, and indeed the basic shape, remained the same. There was a curtain wall that divided off the plot of land on which the tabernacle would stand. Then at the centre of this plot, this holy tent was erected. It was set apart for this God-given purpose. To be set apart is the essence of what being holy means. The tabernacle had two rooms. The outer room was holy enough. But it was the inner room which was the supremely holy spot. It was here that the Israelites were to meet with God. So, verse 1:

Now the first covenant [in other words, the Old Testament] had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.

'Worship' is how we are to approach God. 'Sanctuary' simply means holy place. Verse 2:

A tabernacle [a tent] was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. [The ark was a box, lined inside and out with solid gold.] This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. [The jar of manna was a physical reminder of God's provision for their needs in the wilderness years; Aaron's staff reminded them of how God powerfully intervened to save them; the stone tablets were those on which the Ten Commandments were written.] Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. [The cherubim were representations of strange winged animals that stood on the lid of the ark, called the atonement cover because blood from the animal sacrifices was sprinkled over it on the Day of Atonement.] But we cannot discuss these things in detail now. [Quite.]

Now the point about the tabernacle was this. It was the place where the Israelites were required by God to meet with him. It was a holy place because of the holiness of the God who they were to encounter there. In the Holy Place they were close. In the Most Holy Place they were closer still. But the truth is, the holy God did not really live there at all. It was not God's home. Our passage makes that clear when it begins to speak about what Jesus did, in v11:

he [Jesus] went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation.

God is a holy God. He can't fit into a tent. Not even a big one. Even a uniquely special one, as this was. Of course not! And that is not a new thought in the New Testament. For instance, King Solomon was perfectly clear about that when he built the first great temple. So in his prayer of dedication, in 1 Kings 8, Solomon prayed:

"But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! Hear from heaven, your dwelling place"

By his very nature, God is way out of our reach. The apostle Paul sums up God's holy nature in 1 Timothy 6:15-16:

God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no-one has seen or can see.

God is our Creator. We are merely his creatures. There is an infinite gulf between us. His home is like an unapproachable light to us. Like the sun, for instance. All we can do is to be aware of it from a very great distance, and even then we have to avert our eyes lest they get burnt. If we got in a rocket and tried to get near the sun we would soon find how unapproachable it was - how impossible for us to make our home there. The holy God lives in unapproachable light. But the trouble is, we cannot really be at home anywhere else but with him. So we have a problem. That's the first point: The tabernacle and its Most Holy Place were not God's home. They were inadequate visual aids, teaching us about heaven itself - the very presence of the holy God. The second point is from verses 6-10, and it is this: Secondly, THE PRIESTS AND THEIR SACRIFICES WERE NOT THE WAY TO GOD'S HOME You see what is for us the problem of God's holiness goes far beyond even the contrast between the glory and majesty of God's nature as the immortal creator and ruler of the universe, and our nature as dust, alive for a moment and soon to return to dust. God's holiness is not just a matter of his greatness. It is also a matter of his perfection. The contrast between God's perfection, and our imperfection is even more devestating in its consequences for us. This is not the rather impersonal matter of radically differing natures. This gets personal. Because our imperfection is not a minor blemish. I was given a new watch for my birthday a few days ago. Yesterday I managed to scratch the glass. It was perfect. No longer. I now have to tell the time through scratched glass. Very irritating. But the watch still works fine. It is only a blemish really. Not so with us. Our imperfection is what the bible calls sin. And the root of sin is a deeply personal rejection of God as the rightful ruler of our lives. And that rebellion leads us into a corruption of thought and of action which touches every part of our lives. The fact that most of the time we think that our sins are trivial is simply a symptom of how we have lost almost all sense of what true holiness is like, and how desperately serious is the offence that we cause God over and over and over again. Even in the tiny details of our lives that hardly matter to us we refuse to obey what God wants of us. And our problem is this: God, in the perfection of his holiness cannot and will not tolerate such sin. How does he react to it? In the first place, it grieves him. And grief leads on to anger. Righteous, justified anger. His is the anger of the parent crossed by a wilfully and dangerously disobedient child, purged of its irritability, inconsistency and self-centredness, and multiplied a billion times. That anger is what the bible calls the wrath of God. And God does not stand idly by in the face of sin which he hates so much. God acts on his anger, in judgement. For a while he stays his hand. He is patient. But not for ever. Judgement begins now in all the consequences for society and the individual life of rejection of God's ways. But that is only a start. One day the axe will fall. There is no soft, comfortable way to say it. Those who reject God will get what they want. They will be cut off from him for ever. They will be sent to hell. That is the farthest away from home that you could possibly imagine, and then some. Just as we turn away from the painful glare of the sun, we much prefer to avert our gaze from this teaching. But if we don't face up to it, we will never understand what the Christian faith is all about. We will never understand what the holy God has done for us in sending Jesus. We will never have a full experience of the liberation that Jesus brings. The bible is explicit. 2 Thessalonians 1:6ff:

God is just [we might also say, God is holy]: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people

They will be far, far from home. Only the holy can enter the presence of the holy God. But how can we who are so very unholy become holy? How can we approach God without being burned up? That is where those Old Testament rituals come in again. When Moses met with God on Mount Sinai, the Lord had said to him:

"Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them."

How were they to consecrate themselves? Through animal sacrifice. Through the shedding of blood. Verses 6-7 summarise what was required of them:

When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room [that is, the Holy Place] to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room [that is, the Most Holy Place], and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.

You see what this says about how great the gulf is between us, defiled by our sin as we are, and the holy God. Only one man, only once a year on one day, only after the shedding of blood, could enter the Most Holy Place. And what is more, says Hebrews, the lesson we are to draw from all this is that it didn't work anyway! From verse 8:

The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshipper.

And you can see the point. Imagine a new scheme for admission to watch the Magpies at St James' Park. One fan has to be chosen out of all the tens of thousands. He must be a paid up Platinum Club member. The chosen fan will be allowed to watch one specified match each year. Only if he keeps paying his hefty sub each year will he be allowed to go back. No one else will be allowed in the ground. Ever. That's not what you would call open access. The ritual of the Day of Atonement, says Hebrews, was not the way to get access to God's home. It is designed to show us exactly the opposite. It shows us that we are shut out. And there is nothing we can do about it. Our only hope of access to the home of the holy God is if he introduces a radical new scheme which will throw open the barriers to anyone who wants in. And God will have to pay for it himself. The only way for us to overcome what is for us the problem of God's holiness is if God himself opens a way, without compromising his holiness. And that is what he has done through the death of Jesus. That is the third point, in verses 11-14: Thirdly, JESUS AND HIS DEATH ARE THE ONLY WAY TO GOD'S HOME What Jesus did was not a visual aid. It was the real thing. He wasn't going in and out of a tent. For us, he paid the price of entry into heaven itself - the very home of God. And he went there, to open the way for all who will depend on him alone. Once and for all. He was the eternal High Priest. His was the eternal, once for all blood sacrifice, satisfying the righteous anger of the holy God, and opening the gate of heaven to let us in. Jesus was God, paying the price of sin that his own wrath demanded. Verses 11-12:

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.

Some of you will remember the Apollo 13 moon mission. Others will have seen the film. When the rocket was far, far from home, it was hit be debris in space. The famous message over the radio was: "Houston, we have a problem." It looked as if those astronauts would die in space. But they were painstakingly guided back home in their crippled craft. The old mission plan was jettisoned. New systems were developed for getting them home. As they re-entered the atmosphere, there was only one route that would work. If they took any other, they would be burned up. But, with the world holding its breath, they were guided safely home by the control centre. We have a problem. It is that God is holy, and we are not. He is holy in his majestic nature. He is holy in his perfection, and in his hatred of sin. We are insignificant creatures. And what is more, we are defiled by our ridiculous defiance of God. We are far, far from home. There is an infinite gulf between us and God. When we catch the scent of home in the air, and decide that we want to get back to God after all, we must despair of our own ability to do anything to put the problem right. We cannot. We are shut out of the real Most Holy Place. Only if God himself opens a way can we have hope. That is what he has done through Jesus. And about that, we will hear more next week.

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