Sunday, September 30, 2001

"In Search of ... Holiness"
Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, September 30, 2001
Text: Hebrews 12:14-24

There are two unforgivable sins for those who play golf. (By the way, I am speaking now from deep personal conviction and experience).

The first of the great sins of golf was something that we heard about a few months ago, when our Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, played Tiger Woods in a personal game. Tiger Woods was interviewed at the end of the game and asked, "Now tell me, what do you think of Prime Minister Chretien's game?"

And he said, "Oh, he's very good. There is only one problem: He does what everybody does when they play with me - they try to swing too hard to impress me and when they do, they often have a poor game." That's the first sin. Trying too hard to impress.

The second is the problem of not keeping your eye on the ball, but lifting your head to see where it has gone before you ever make contact. Now for this, I must admit, I am the world's greatest sinner!

I don't know why, but somebody sent me the story of a cleric who went to a very famous golf course in the United States, and when they got there they were informed by the club professional that Arnold Palmer plays there frequently. So the cleric asked them, "Well, can you tell me what he's like?" And he responded, "I'll tell you when you get to the most difficult hole."

Sure enough when they got to the most difficult hole, the caddy said to the cleric, "Now then, Arnold Palmer always takes out his three-iron here and says a prayer." The cleric thought, fine, went to the ball, got out his three-iron, said a prayer and hit the ball. It landed in the water trap.

He said, "Clearly, the Lord is not listening to me."

The caddy said, "Oh, He heard you all right. It's just that when Palmer prays, he keeps his head down."

Sometimes we do two things. One is we try to impress and the other is we don't keep our focus. I think as goes golf, so goes life. And as goes life, so goes our faith. For many of us in this life, I do honestly believe we're trying our very best to be good disciples. We're trying to be good Christians. We're trying to impress God and impress others with our faith and our conviction. But there are also times when not only do we over-try, but we also lose our focus and we lose our way.

I think, my friends, in the troubled times in which we live, Christians are asking themselves more and more, "How can I really live a holy life?" When so much is going on in the world that is perverse and dangerous and difficult and painful, how do I, just me, live a holy life?"

Well, I would like to make a couple of suggestions to you today, and both of these come from our text from the Book of Hebrews.

The first is that as with keeping our eye on the ball, there is a need in this life to maintain our focus. The writer of Hebrews writes in Chapter 12 verse 1, "Look to Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of your faith." In other words, keep your focus on the person and the work of Jesus Christ.

I think in these troubled times, many people are finding it very difficult to keep their focus. For example, a radio listener called me and said, "You know, Reverend Stirling, one of the great challenges I'm facing right now is that I'm having a hard time focussing in prayer."

She said, "With all the worries of the world, with all the fears of everything that has gone on over the last couple of weeks, the moment I begin to pray it seems I lose my focus. My mind goes back to all the horrible images and I simply can't get them out of my mind. So when I pray, I find I'm not praying for the things that I ought to be praying for."

I had a similar experience when talking to a man who sells cars. He said, "Andrew, you have no idea how difficult it is in this current climate to sell anything."

He said, "Oh, I've had some people come into my showroom, I've been able to introduce them to the product, and usually under most circumstances, I'm able to close the deal. The problem is that everybody feels so uncertain that I can't get them to actually focus on the final deal and most of them right now are walking away without ever signing the papers."

I ran into another man who was similarly concerned about the state of the economy and he said these shocking words: "You know, what we need is some closure. What I hope is that they are just going to get on with bombing somebody so that all of us can feel content, so that everything is in order and so we can get back to focussing on the things that really matter."

I wanted to say to him, although I didn't have the opportunity, that I don't think it's as simple as that. That I don't think there is going to be an immediate closure and that everything is going to end. That we are in a different world and this is going to be a lifelong struggle, for freedom and for peace and for tolerance in the world. And it is going to take an immense amount of time and wisdom and patience to see ourselves through. There are no quick fixes to allow us simply to focus.
The question we as Christians have to ask ourselves is, "In these turbulent times, on what should we focus?"

And what we need to focus on, is as the writer of Hebrews suggests, on Jesus Christ, on holiness, on godly living, for godly living is not something that we can fabricate just by swinging a little harder and making a greater effort. Godly living is opening ourselves to the power and the presence of God in our daily lives. The words the writer uses in this particular passage from the Book of Hebrews, is hagios. He said you are to follow holiness, or sanctification.

Now in the Old Testament, this word finds its roots in the earliest days, when the people of Israel believed in what we call clean or holy places. The ground around the Burning Bush was called holy, a clean place. Joshua called Gilgal a holy place. In the Book of Isaiah, the Temple was a holy place, a sacred place.

When the prophets came along, they didn't just want to see holy places; they wanted to see a holy nation and a holy people. Micah said that one of the things we must do is to humble ourselves before God, to seek justice, and to walk humbly with our God. In other words, it's not okay just to have holy places; we need to have a holy nation. And the Prophets said, therefore, that for the people to be holy they must abide by the law. They must be true to God and they must allow God to lead them into the paths of holiness and righteousness.

In the New Testament the writers pick up another theme: that Jesus Christ is the holiness of God. That He is the hagios of God. That He is superior according to the Book of Hebrews to Moses, that He Himself is the one who bore the sin of the world but did not sin, who faced temptation but would not be tempted. That He was the one who faced His enemies, who were nailing Him to a tree, He forgave them for what they had done. That this is a man who did not fall into sin but by His very focus on the will of the Father was able to fulfil God's kingdom and God's reign. Jesus became the holiness of God. That is why the writer of Hebrews says, "Look to Jesus who is the pioneer and perfecter of your faith."

But the New Testament goes even further. It says that God will send his Holy Spirit upon us. That it is not just a matter of focussing on Christ as an example but that Christ sends the Holy Spirit into our lives in order that we may be able to walk in the path of God. And that we might be able to focus on the things that are of God and not of the world. That is the power of the Holy Spirit.

In other words, what the New Testament is telling us is that we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ in difficult times. When we are unsure of what we should do or how we should act, there is a need for us to open ourselves to the power of Christ and the power of Christ's Holy Spirit, who will lead us into the path of righteousness.

Now, I couldn't believe it, but yesterday in the Toronto Star there was an article entitled Ethics are Ruled by Emotions, about a doctoral student at Princeton University who has been studying how we make our moral decisions. In it, he argues that we do not make our moral decisions mainly on the basis of logic or reasoning, or even on the basis of tradition, but that most of us make our moral decisions, our ethical decisions, on the basis of our emotions. And that our emotions are informed by the things in this world that we really believe, the things that we actually hold in our hearts.

Now, Christians have been saying this for a long time, and it's absolutely right, that where the focus of your heart is, there will be your behaviour. There will be your goodness. Not just a plethora of written laws and rules and regulations, but in a heart that has opened itself to the holiness of God in Jesus Christ in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our ethical decisions and our morals are informed by the very power of the living God who is in our lives. And it seems to me therefore, my friends, that with the complexities of the challenges that face us, with the enormities of the things that lie before our world, it is imperative that people of faith fix their hearts on the holiness of God as we see it in Jesus Christ.

Secondly, I believe this has a very profound effect on the way we live and for what we pray, which brings me to the second point. Namely, that we need, then, to discipline ourselves.

The problem with golf is when you try to swing too hard you lose your discipline and your swing goes all awry and the ball can go anywhere.

When we lose our discipline, then in fact, our lives can go anywhere. And one of the things that I think is a religious impulse within people's hearts is trying to impress or appease or please other people and God. Sometimes, out of a religious fervour and vigour, we desire to impress God with our holiness and we think, somehow, the harder we try and the more moral we try to teach ourselves to be, the more impressed God is going to be with us. Likewise, we do the same with one another. We try to impress people so that we don't offend, so that we look somehow holy and righteous on the outside, that everyone may see us.

Somebody sent me a gorgeous clipping, and I don't know whether whoever sent me this was trying to send me a message, but it is a picture of a minister coming out of church on a Sunday morning and his spouse is standing at the door and screaming at him, "Next Sunday, don't call them sinners before you've taken up the Offertory." Now that would never happen here at Eaton Memorial, would it? But our impulse is to be soft and nice, just to impress everyone, to make everyone feel at home and comfortable.

My friends, the Christian life is not a soft life, it is not an easy life. It is a life of immense conviction. It is a life of immense discipline. It is a life of following in the footsteps of none other than Jesus of Nazareth, and nothing short of walking in His footsteps, taking up His cross, and following His path leads to a righteous life.
The writer of Hebrews put it so beautifully in our text when he suggested that there are two things that we need to be disciplined about.

The first of which he says, is, "Pursue peace with all." Now what a message this is in our day and age! Living at peace with other human beings isn't easy. It's not easy in your home with the people that you love and are dear to you. It's not easy in society with all its challenges. And it is certainly not easy in the broader world. It's almost a very unnatural thing to live at peace with our fellow human beings. But this writer is saying that this is something we must discipline ourselves to do.

Of course the foundation, the focus of that is none other than Jesus Christ. When we lose Him as our focus and our example, when we do not open ourselves to the power of the Holy Spirit, then it is harder to live at peace. For it is unnatural at times to live at peace and we need Christ to lead the way.

I was deeply humbled this past week when I attended a prayer meeting and a number of clergy and lay people got together and asked ourselves, in these days, what do we pray for? When there are people just wanting to simply get in there and bomb and get it over with, and there are other people who want to do nothing, just lay down and play dead, what do we pray for?

David Bruce, one of my colleagues in ministry, said something very simple. He said, "You know what I think we need to pray for this very day? We need to pray as Jesus would pray. And for whom would Jesus pray? He would pray for his enemies. And who right now in our hearts and our minds are the enemies? The Taleban." He said, "We should pray for the Taleban."

Not that they might get away with it, not that they might pervert the course of justice, but pray that they might do the right thing. And you know, I left that meeting, and I got in the car and - I don't know if you're like me - but praying for the Taleban is not something I have done, I'll be honest with you. And it humbled me because I realized that is exactly what Jesus Christ would do. He would pray for his enemies. I think we have been very lax in many ways, throughout the ages, in praying for our enemies. Praying that they will do the right thing, and lifting them up on wings of prayer with a thousand angels, might get them to do the right thing.
You see, if we do not focus on Jesus Christ then we get carried away and we pray for all manner of things. Focus on Christ and pray for the things that are holy.

There is also a need for us to discipline ourselves in terms of our own lives and behaviour. I read a quote this last week, I don't know who said it or wrote it, but it went straight to my heart. It said: "Love without moral gravitation leads to amiable acquiescence." Let me say it again: "Love without moral gravitation leads to amiable acquiescence." I think, my friends, sometimes our culture misunderstands that love requires discipline. That love requires a moral centre and a moral focus.

One of the accusations that is made against western society is that we have become decadent. That we have become materialistic. That we have become loose in our morals. That we haven't cared for the poor. That we haven't provided for the needs of the poorest parts of the world. That we have been obsessed with ourselves even at the expense of others, and that we have indeed talked a lot about love and rights and freedom, but we have in the midst of that often lost our moral gravitation and have therefore had an amiable acquiescence to almost anything.
I think if this moment in time is anything, it is a wake-up call to our society to understand that it needs to have a moral centre. And that the moral centre is predicated on faith, and that we need, as Christians, to keep our eyes focussed on the pioneer and the perfecter of that faith, Jesus Christ.

In these times, the words from the Book of Hebrews are a clarion call. I quote them again: "Pursue peace with all people and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." What a challenge we have before us. Amen.

This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.