An Alien Environment
Today we explore the holiness of God and how it relates to us. For many of us we approach holiness the way we approach a big, tangled ball of yarn. We’d like to unravel it and get the knots out, but it’s a lot easier to simply cut it out and move on. And the more we look at holiness the more it reveals our own messiness. Maybe we are the ones who are tangled up in spots. We know we’ve got some issues, but we strive to do our best and move on. God is holy. He’s perfect. We’re not. Praise Jesus for coming to save us so that we can still be called righteous. Otherwise, holiness is alien to us.
I have a series of pictures to show you, and your job is to decide whether they come from scenes in a movie depicting an alien planet or whether they are actual photos from earth. Try to guess which
[Pictures shown in service only]
You may be surprised to learn that all these pictures are actual, unaltered photos of places on earth. Some of them look alien enough to make it into a sci-fi scene, but all are native to our world.
Holiness is something that may often feel foreign but is meant for you and me. It is a quality God desires to describe us. A. W. Tozer writes about this holiness disconnect in his book, Knowledge of the Holy.
Until we have seen ourselves as God sees us, we are not likely to be much disturbed over conditions around us as long as they do not get so far out of hand as to threaten our comfortable way of life. We have learned to live with unholiness and have come to look upon it as the natural and expected thing.
To recover a right understanding of holiness, we need to get a better glimpse of our holy God.
There has been a bold, earnest cry that has been going on while we have been here this morning. That cry is, “Holy, holy, holy!” We may not be aware of this cry, but there are others who themselves cannot help but cry out ceaselessly this one attribute of God. This cry did not start today but has been going on for millennia. The Bible describes a scene that took place 2,700 years ago, where angels in God’s presence continually cried out God’s holiness. Then in the book of Revelation there is a heavenly throne room where angelic creatures continue with this cry day and night. The Bible says they are covered with eyes – it’s as though they were created for the sole purpose of taking in the enormity of God’s holiness.
We cannot experience an encounter with God without becoming awestruck at his holiness. Have you ever had a moment when you had an overwhelming sense of God’s presence like this?
Turn to Isaiah 6 in your Bibles. We will look today at an encounter this young prophet had with God. It was during a time of uncertainty, because the great king, Uzziah, had died. Our passage, Isaiah 6:1-7, describes Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple, making clear that, although the king had died, God was still on the throne.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” – Isa 6:1-7 NIV
So what is God’s holiness? Isaiah encountered God in all of his holiness, and it was a life-changing event. It’s the same sort of change we can experience, too, and it has to do with connecting with the real God, whom Scripture calls the one, true God. I like what Mark Buchanan wrote about this Isaiah passage in his book, The Holy Wild.
If all [God’s] attributes were distilled down to one, crystallized in a single word, what would that word be?
The angels know.
The seraphim, you would think, must have a vast repertoire of songs, songs that evoke and celebrate the manifold beauty of the Lord – His love, His power, His goodness, His mercy. But of all the virtues they might worship, of all His excellencies they might extol, there is one thing they say, thrice repeated, back and forth, night and day, world without end: “Holy, holy, holy.”
God is holy.
How should we understand God’s holiness?
God’s holiness is incomparable.
God’s holiness is so overwhelming that his specially designed angels spend their days proclaiming it. In our scene you find God’s throne raised high, so that Isaiah probably had to crane his neck as he glimpsed upward. The train of God’s robe filled the temple. On June 2, 1953, Queen Elizabeth II attended her coronation ceremony wearing a robe with a train that was 21 feet long. The length of the train indicates the power and authority of the sovereign. The queen’s robe indicated her separateness from her people and the honor due uniquely to her. The train of God’s robe wound to and fro in the cavernous space of the temple, filling it completely. God’s holiness is bound up in his incomparable power. God’s holiness involves his incomparable power.
The seraphim shielded their eyes from looking at God, and they covered their feet out of reverence for his holiness. Four of their six wings were used to deal with being in God’s holy presence. Their voices proclaimed his holiness. The threefold repetition made their proclamation in the highest superlative. God is the holiest. Their voices shook the temple as they thundered. And they added the words, “the whole earth is full of his glory.” Just like the temple is filled with God’s glorious robe, the earth, too is filled with God’s glory. All of this flows from a God whose holiness has no equal. God’s holiness involves incomparable glory.
As we think of holiness, we often think of another aspect of it: righteousness. Righteousness is good, right, without any flaw or sin. We may even call it cleanness. I did some research on cleanrooms – not cleanrooms as in you just cleaned your room, but in the sense of the industrial cleanrooms where experiments take place in carefully controlled environments. Willis Whitfield is the person credited with pioneering the modern “cleanroom” concept in the middle of the 20th century. He developed air filtration technology that scrubbed the air clean of impurities. Today’s cleanrooms function with only 2.5 particles per cubic meter of air. Compare that to the air around you now, which has 35 million particles per cubic meter! I like an Intel ad that showed this cleanroom comparison. All of this means that if you entered a true cleanroom, you’d be a contaminant. For that reason people have to shower and put on full suits just to enter. God’s holiness involves incomparable righteousness. There is no stain of sin, not one speck of impurity to be found in the righteous presence of God.
Isaiah’s encounter with the sinless purity of a righteous God gave him a panic attack. His response to the holiness of God was not, “Wow!” but “Woe.” He said the ancient version of “Oy vey.” “Woe to me! I am undone.” God’s holiness made Isaiah aware of his own sinfulness. In Isaiah’s case it was his unclean lips. We don’t know if he swore like a sailor on shore leave or if he spoke crudely or rudely, but in the presence of God, his realization of sin overwhelmed him. What sin would you become aware of in God’s presence? What would make you say, “Woe is me”? Would it be a lack of forgiveness? Would it be what you’ve been watching on Netflix? Or the images you’ve pulled up on your computer or phone? Would it be dishonesty, anger, or pride? Whatever that sin issue is that you’ve got, that thing that you’ve tucked away in your life becomes the most important issue when you encounter God in his holiness. We will talk more about our response to God’s holiness in a bit.
But first we want to stress that God’s holiness is incomparable. Exodus 15:11 asks,
“Who among the gods is like you, LORD? Who is like you–majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?”
Hannah worshiped God in 1 Samuel 2:2 stating confidently,
“There is no one holy like the LORD; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.”
God’s holiness is active
And God’s holiness is more than incomparable. It’s active. His holiness leads to his activity. If your only picture of God’s holiness is a sinless cleanroom, something is wrong. Somehow we get this idea in our heads that holiness is sterilization; that it’s defined merely by the absence of sin rather than the fullness of God’s character. Holiness will not sterilize you. It will mobilize you. It is fertile ground for the productive life.
God makes clear in his word that his holiness is a defining feature of his action. It is the basis of his pledges, the collateral he provides for his promises. Psalm 89:35 says,
“Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness…”
In Amos we read,
“The Sovereign LORD has sworn by his holiness…” (Amos 4:2 NIV).
His holiness is described as visible decoration in the Psalms.
“Your statutes, LORD, stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days” (Psalm 93:5 NIV),
“Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth” (Psalm 96:9 NIV).
We find descriptions of God’s character, his name, his words, and his works all described as holy. Holiness is more an active force of God’s will than it is a passive, germ-free fortress of solitude.
In light of God’s holiness – in light of how central holiness is to who God is – consider the audacity that God would live among us. Jesus became human like us. He left the purity of the cleanroom to purify us. Then a holy God took on everything unholy. He took on our lying, our anger, our lust, our impatience, our selfishness, our pride. He took on our judgmental attitudes that left us under judgment. Jesus let all of it press upon him while nailed to a cross. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners – unholy – Christ – the holy God – died for us” (Romans 5:8). 2 Corinthians 5:21 says it bluntly.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
God’s holiness is active. It’s so active that he spent it to make us holy.
How should we respond to God’s holiness?
An act of God that costly means we must respond. What is our right response to all of this?
We confess our sin
First, we confess our sin. This is what Isaiah did, and it’s what we must do when we understand the holy act of Jesus on the cross. 1 John 1:9 says,
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
If you have never responded to Jesus’ sacrifice with your own confession of sin, this is your starting point. Hebrews 12:14 says,
“without holiness no one will see the Lord.”
If you will not accept the holiness Jesus offers, there is no other way to get it. Just like a million Lysol wipes can’t give your kitchen the status of an industrial cleanroom, no amount of good deeds or therapy or positive thinking will grant you holiness. So confess your sin and place your faith in Jesus today. Take that step and tell someone about it. Chip Ingram shares how Jesus’ act on the cross allows us to experience God’s holiness:
“The arrangements have already been made for you to approach the God who is holy. A very costly permission has been paid for in full by Jesus and handed to you freely, with your name already engraved. When Jesus died upon the cross, you sin was covered. You now have a priceless, all-access pass into the holy presence.”
All it takes is confessing your sin to God and placing faith in Jesus. This step is still important for believers, too. The same gospel – the same good news – still applies to us. Each encounter with a holy God will likely bring about an awareness of our sin. We might be tempted to confess privately in prayer, which is good, but sometimes our confession needs to be public for the sake of the rest of us. Acts 19:18 tells of believers coming in droves to confess their sins. James 5:16 says we should confess our sins one to another.
A revival like this took place in 1995 and garnered national attention. An Associated Press article tells the story this way:
In Illinois, Wheaton College students stood in line all night this semester to confess their sins publicly and renounce drugs, alcohol and pornography. At Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass., students who used to fidget through the 40-minute morning chapel service sat spellbound for nearly five hours one night as classmate after classmate made public confessions of sins. At Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, a white student who confessed to the sin of racism was immediately embraced by two black students, as others at the service applauded and wept. Students at evangelical colleges are embracing a revival calling them to repent.
The movement swept across 30 different campuses as confession of sin led to an encounter with a holy God. We can help others by confessing our own sin and even by lovingly confronting them with others.
We commit to holy living
Second, we commit to holy living. Hopefully by this point you don’t consider holy living to be some monkish lifestyle out alone somewhere. Maybe it sounds like strict adherence to rules where anything fun is cut out, or perhaps it sounds like a weird, mystic lifestyle. It’s none of those. The word holy comes from the old Anglo-Saxon term, halig or hal, which means “well” or “whole.” Holy living is what makes you well and complete. Mark Buchanan describes holy living as becoming both whole and wholly alive. Without it we are incomplete; something is missing. With it life takes on a new character we never dreamt was possible. We get to be fulfilled and fruitful.
The Bible talks about our new lives as Christians were made
“to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24).
Zechariah sings a beautiful song in Luke 1 that describes God enabling his children to
“serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our lives” (Luke 1:75).
If you want a more extreme example, look at Romans 6:19, 22.
“I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. … But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
Paul qualifies his example before he gives it – he isn’t condoning slavery. He shares, though, that the closest example to what he’s talking about is us considering ourselves slaves to God, slaves to righteousness. If you want to put it another way, we should be so committed to the cause of living rightly that our own desires are completely eclipsed. That lifestyle leads to holiness.
You might say, “I can’t do that. I could have some momentary success but not long term. I could succeed in some life areas but not all.” You can do it. It starts with confessing sin and being purified by God and having access to his holiness. Isaiah was overwhelmed by his sin but was purified. You can be purified, too, and you have the promise of God’s holiness. The Bible says,
“Since we have these promises…let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (2 Corinthians 7:1).
The promises are that God will be a father to us, we will be his children, and that a holy God will walk among us, making us holy, set apart for him. We can commit to holy living because a holy God has committed to us.
We carry out God’s mission
Third, we carry out God’s mission. It was only after Isaiah’s repentance that a seraphim purged his sin, and then Isaiah was clean. Verse 8 follows with a mission:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
It is only after our cleansing from sin that we can answer the call of a holy God. And this is what God does. He takes us and makes us wholly alive in his holiness, and then he gives us a mission to fulfill. I remember the exciting time in my life when I answered God’s call on my life, when like Isaiah I enthusiastically said, “Here am I. Send me!” I also remember having the distinct feeling that God had been asking for some time, but I hadn’t heard. Because I was caught up with some of my own unholy issues, I missed God’s call. So my joy was mixed with some regret, too.
Is it possible that God has a mission for you that you’ve missed? Have your own sin issues stunted your growth and your ability to serve the King of kings? Forget a specific call for a moment and consider the general call for all believers to be the transforming salt and light in this culture. Are you living in such a distinct way that people are being drawn to a holy God? Chip Ingram writes about Christians and our influence in a culture that has gone awry:
We blame Hollywood, the media, video games, terrible people, or the educational system, but if Christians lived like Christians, things would be remarkably different. If all forty million Americans who claim the name of Jesus took God’s holiness seriously, the entire country would be transformed in ten years. Remember that the way we act as believers and as a church states clearly what we actually think about God. What are our actions and words telling the world about who God is?
You may not yet know a specific mission from God, but all believers have a general one as we commit to holy living.
As we close, I want to read an account from Mark Buchanan about how God once helped him experience his holiness:
Years ago, I was in Uganda, riding to church in the back of a rattling old truck, cheek by jowl with a crowd of others, black and white. The roads were mostly unpaved, and the vehicle threw up mounds of chalky red dust. We were covered with it, and I wasn’t very happy about that. We stopped at a small village to pick up yet more people, and many children, seeing the unusual sight of white people riding in the back of a pickup like field workers, gathered around, talking about us in their rapid-fire patois, giggling, pointing. I made some offhand remark. I don’t remember what, other than that it was barbed, caustic. A Ugandan man standing beside me looked straight at me. His clothes were threadbare from too many scrubbings, from the endless struggle to keep them clean. His skin was glazed with sweat and talcy with dust. “My brother,” he said, “you should not say such things. You are a new creation in Christ. How can blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth? No unwholesome word should come out of your mouth, but only that which is useful for building others up according to their needs, that all who hear it would be edified.”
He may as well have stuck bamboo shoots under my fingernails. He may as well shoved me naked through a gauntlet. I was undone. I was heading to church to preach that morning. This man would sit under my teaching, under my words. A man of unclean lips.
What was hardest was the tone in which he said it. I wish he’d been sharp-edged and scolding, haughty in his disapproval – a right proud pharisee, holier than thou. But he wasn’t like that at all. He said it with heartbreak. He said it pleadingly. He said it as one who had been burned in the fire and now lived to protect others, to warn them. He knew what it was to stand in the presence of a holy God and be undone. Even in my shame, I longed to stand there, too.
Are you ready to confront shame and stand in God’s presence? Are you hungry for the wholeness Jesus brings so that you can be wholly alive through him?
Buchanan, M. (2003). The Holy Wild. Grand Rapids: Multnomah.
Ingram, C. (2016). The Real God. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Tozer, A. W. (1961). The Knowledge of the Holy. New York: HarperCollins.
 (Tozer, 1961, pp. 103-104)
 (Buchanan, 2003, p. 145)
 (Ingram, 2016, p. 134)
 (Tozer, 1961, p. 106)
 (Ingram, 2016, p. 140)
 (Buchanan, 2003, pp. 153-155)