What’s it all for?

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by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

December 3, 2000

Scripture: 1Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:25-36

“…to establish your hearts blameless in holiness before God and our Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

1Thessalonians 3:13

On this first Sunday in Advent we begin again the journey of memory and faith through the events and teachings of our religion. Many of us have made this journey many times; its special moments are the special moments of our lives, its high and low points determining the ups and downs of our moods. We are joyous at Christmas, introspective during Lent, sad on Good Friday and triumphant at Easter. Our sense of the time of our lives is controlled in deep ways by this Christian journey through time, and so it is difficult to step back and ask, “What is the destination? What’s it all for?”

It’s a good thing we do not ask such questions often but rather just get on with life. You remember the advice of Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, but it is equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining. So most of us wisely just get on with living. This wisdom is well stated in the epigram, “Life is what happens while we are making plans,” which means “Trust the process rather than stand aside too long thinking of ways to control it.” So there is a lot to be said for the practical approach to life, not least that it is a good example of the life of faith in the sense of trusting God in the process and receiving His gifts humbly and gratefully as we encounter them unplanned along the way. Nevertheless, as we begin the annual journey again it might be helpful to step back and check whether we are still headed in the right direction, to ask, “Where are we going, and what’s all the effort for?” in the hope that a periodic check up will keep us on course. What then is the purpose of the Christian life?

Today I want to focus Paul’s answer in our text. The purpose of the Christian life is “…to establish your hearts blameless in holiness before God and our Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” The purpose of the Christian journey is to make us fit to stand before God himself, and the name for that state of fitness is holiness. So the more precise question must be “What is holiness?” I know that holiness is not a familiar term to us, sounding more like some thing from the 19th century, but its meaning is clear. It is the goal of Christian living, the answer to the question why we struggle to live this way.

In order to answer that question we must look at the context in which Paul uses the word. It is a context that those of us who still remember what is now called “fire and brimstone” religion readily recognize, the end of the world, the second coming of Christ, and the judgment. Our gospel passage reminds us of this theme; signs in heaven, distress among nations, confusion like the roaring of the sea, people faint with fear and foreboding at what is coming upon the world. This is a typical outburst of what I call disasterizing; and there is always grist for the mills of disaster. Look at our current situation; in about a month some of us – pushed by the media, which thrive on disaster – have gone from euphoria at the solid success of our economy, the stability of our institutions, and our unparalleled status in the world, to “fear and foreboding.” Let me say that I for one do not believe that a falling market and a contested election are, – and this is one of the few contexts in which this phrase can be used literally – the end of the world. The “end of the world” context in early Christianity meant that the purpose of the Christian life is to prepare for the judgment, prepare to stand before Christ the judge. That form of religion is simple and straight forward; because of our sins we are bound for hell; because of His love God provides a savior, whom we must accept and obey. If we do that, God the Holy Spirit will confirm our hearts in holiness and we shall be acquitted in the final judgment and go to heaven. This is the traditional version of the initial Advent theme, the return of Christ to judge the world and the need to prepare for that. The logic is that as we prepare for his first coming in humility at Christmas so we prepare also for his second coming in glory at the end of the world. These are not insignificant themes and I do not wish to appear to dismiss them by focusing, as we do now, on another dimension.

There is a third coming of Christ, which is of more immediate significance than the past and the future advents, namely the present, and that brings us to the question, “What is holiness for us in our particular present?” The traditional definition of holiness emphasizes separation from the ordinary human world and total consecration to God, and there is truth in that if we emphasize the positive element of consecration to God rather than the negative element of separation from the world. The beatitude on purity of heart captures the essence of holiness. The pure in heart shall see God because they desire God above and before all other things and persons. Holiness in essence is this desire for God, and the greater that desire the greater the holiness.

Paul’s context tells us much about this nature of holiness as desire. The passage begins with his exuberant celebration of their love for him demonstrated by their sending him gifts of support. He loves them in return and longs to see them. He desires them as they desire him, and this mutual desire is the experience out of which the talk of holiness arises. Holiness is integrally related to the love between the apostle and his church, and to the love among the members themselves. Holiness is perfection in love and the goal of the Christian life is this perfection. Therefore, let us cultivate and celebrate our love for one another more and more, and thus make this church a holy place.

Now let’s step away slightly from the text and think about other contexts for holiness. I have mentioned the holiness of love for one another in our community, within the family of God in this place. We might label that Communal Holiness, and continue to cultivate it in our life together. There are, however, two other labels that might help us to fill out the picture of holiness, Social holiness and personal holiness.

Social Holiness wants the structures and dynamics of our economics and politics to be just and true. It applies love at the level of society and at that level love is justice. We don’t have to feel loving towards everyone but we must do all we can to see that no one is treated unfairly, that no one is taken advantage of, misused or unjustly exploited. When we vote conscientiously, choosing the candidate we believe best serves these just desires, we practice social holiness. When we help the poor and disadvantaged in acts of generosity and compassion to others simply because they are the image of God and they are in need, we are socially holy.

Personal holiness, in turn, wants the structures and dynamics of our personal life to be just and true. There is a rich spiritual literature on personal holiness, whose constant theme is growth and transformation. We are like pilgrims on a journey; we are like plants that grow. John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress was until WW1 the most read book in England, after the Bible. More soldiers took it with them to the battlefields than any other book, excepting the Bible. It is an allegory of personal spiritual growth written by a Congregationalist as he sat in an English prison. It influenced our culture more deeply than we can know; some argue that the very idea and form of the English novel, which most of us take for granted, emerged from the spiritual diaries of the Puritans, texts in which they recorded the personal details of their spiritual journeys. Thus the development of character in the novel is the secular counterpart of the development of the soul in the spiritual diary.

I want to conclude by giving you a somewhat different, and you might find it surprising coming from me, account of the disciplines of personal holiness than you would find in Bunyan. Bunyan emphasizes the future; pilgrim is on his way to the promised land and fights against the things of this world that hamper and delay him. The few principles I want to mention emphasize not the future but the present and I think that they balance Pilgrim quite well. They come from the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nat Hahn. I believe that they are true and therefore of Christ, who is after all the universal light that enlightens everyone (John 1: 9). The general theme is what he calls “mindfulness” and we might call “paying attention.” If you pay attention to the things before you, you will discover the Holy Spirit in everything. The Holy Spirit is the “Spirit of Truth who is everywhere and fills all things.” Be mindful of things and He will reveal to you their divine perfection. Be reverent before life – I preached on that in my Thanksgiving sermon; be generous; be sexually responsible; be aware of what you consume, of food or culture; and practice “deep listening and loving speech.”

We have no time to analyze these principles, nevertheless I think they are clear. For us Christians they are conditioned and controlled by the living Christ who as Holy Spirit reveals and enables these good things, and brings them to birth and maturity in us. Mindfulness of the present and of the things before us is present personal holiness; but in the end all is conditioned by the nearness of Christ. He is coming again, in great humility on December 25th, in great power any day. So be alert, watch and pray, for prayer is the gateway to holiness, the portal to the mindfulness of things in the present, to the memories of the past, and to the joyous anticipation of the future, all transformed by the Spirit of Christ.