Scripture: Psalms 99:1-9
Sermon prepared by Rev. Howard Spaan, Beaverton, Oregon
The choir was rehearsing an anthem in which the word "holy" appeared at least eighteen times. One choir member, who was rather new to the Christian faith, remarked to those in the male section of the choir, "We are getting to be pretty holy, aren't we? And I don't even know exactly what holy means." It was time out for the choir director to define the term holy.
Coupled with this event is the trend in pulpits these days to place a strong focus on humans. What can the Lord do for me? The person is the center of attention much more than God. How I should respond to God tends to get pushed very much into the shadows. So the question becomes how I, the believer in God and Jesus Christ relate to him. Rather my expectation is what God should do for me and how I can get him to answer my prayer. Answering prayer means granting the reply I want. Some have said we are living in the "me" generation.
With this in mind, let us turn to Psalm 99, focusing on verses 3, 5, and 9. Here we read, "Let them praise your great and awesome name — he is holy. Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his footstool; he is holy. Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy."
I. Holy – its meaning
If the word we translate as holy is translated literally, it would read "to cut" or "to separate." God is holy. He cuts himself away and stands separate from what or whom?
Something of God's moral-religious quality comes into focus. Did you ever hear of a "holy joe?" Did you ever call some person a "holy joe?" That is not a very complimentary thing to say of a person, is it? A holy joe is so good in his own eyes, he can't really have a relationship with others. After all, he is simply too good. So then he can't really associate or relate with others who are far less than he is morally. After all, I am such a good and upstanding person, I'm just not in that guy's class.
You hear the term "holy father" in connection with the Vatican. The Pontiff is called "his holiness" because he stands separate from all others because of his moral goodness in the office he holds. At least that's the way the Roman Catholic Church holds him to be. When the Pontiff visited Canada some time ago, the press identified him as the Holy Father and His Holiness over and over again.
This view of a man of the cloth is rare among Protestants. Which is only right. To be sure, pastors should be respected in the office they hold, but they are not to be placed on a pedestal of holiness. I am tempted to say, "Let me tell you a secret... ministers aren't so holy. They are just like everyone else."
But this is not news, for the news media and the services dealing with abuse confirm the fact that ministers are not immune from wrong doing any more than any other human beings.
The word "holy" has more to do with relationship than just the abstract quality of being so good.
God separates himself from his image bearers and from the kind of people they have become since the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. How could it be otherwise? God is perfect and the human race he created, to be perfect as he is perfect morally, has become immoral and imperfect. God separates himself from immorality and imperfection. He cannot be in fellowship with people who are just plain sinners and nothing else but sinners.
That is why he has a great and awesome name. God reigns in perfection. There is no part of his being which is flawed in the slightest manner. As he sits on his throne with the cherubim surrounding him, he is exalted and praised in his perfect being. Angels and redeemed believers in heaven sing, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty." They praise him with these words, "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power."
Consequently nations tremble in the presence of such mighty perfection. God is absolutely awesome. He is awesome in a unique sense, quite different than the way the term "awesome" is used in today's culture, particularly among the younger set in society. Don't you often hear,"That's awesome!" being spoken by the young among us? But it is a different kind of awesome than the awesome of Psalm 99.
If something towers over you in majesty, you say it is awesome. When a snow-capped mountain peak, some 11,000 feet above sea level, stands before you at your elevation level of 1,000 feet, you just have to exclaim, "What an awesome sight!" Or if you are on the ocean shoreline at a point where the mighty rocky shoreline juts into the ocean, and then the huge waves roll in striking against the rocks with the spray of the waters breaking seventy or eighty feet above the point where you are standing, that's awesome.
This commands inside of you a sense of awe, a sense of inspiration. You become speechless. Our family once had a small dog who barked at every dog or any other creature, presumably to announce this was his territory. When in Yosemite National Park, we were told to camp in the pet section. When the car door was opened, our dog let out one bark and then became barkless. There he saw not only other dogs, but other pets such as cats, a skunk, a pig, racoons, a goat, parrots, and the list goes on. It was so awesome, his bark left him.
When confronted with the overwhelming, we become speechless. With God we are overcome not only with his creative power and its effects in this universe, but especially in his relationship to man, who corrupted the image of God ever since the day Adam and Eve took of the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden.
II. Holy – because he loves justice
Verse 5 is a scene in which the psalmist is overcome with awe. "Exalt the Lord our God," bring praise, that is, set his name above all else. "Worship at his footstool; God is holy."
Why? Not just because he is almighty. If one sees a power which in magnitude is so much greater than one's own power, this in itself generates a sense of awe, doesn't it? And if such a power gives rise to a sense of great admiration, it becomes a natural response to praise that power. But that is not the motivation for exalting God. He is exalted and praised because he loves justice. God has established equity and fairness, because that is his very nature.
When we look at Jacob (and Israel), we immediately are impressed that justice and fairness were lacking. The lying Jacob was anything but fair and just. God's chosen people, Israel, are such a contrast to God and justice. They were corrupt. They were corrupt, not just in their false worship which is so prominently seen in such a host of recordings in Israel's history, but in their lifestyle. They were certainly unjust and unfair among many other areas of their lifestyle. Did you ever stop to consider the fact that they engaged in false worship because they were unjust?
Have you ever noticed how each time they went after Baals or what-have-you, they had already become unjust with their fellows? When Joseph was sent by his father to see his brothers, they decided to kill Joseph because of his dreams. Was that just? When Judah convinced the brothers to sell Joseph as a slave to the caravan going to Egypt, was that just and fair?
All this is a hallmark of the Israelites throughout their history as recorded in the Old Testament. The New Testament tells the story of the same kind of people. They chose to become unfair for the purpose of taking advantage of others among other motives.
The next step was becoming outright crooked. To became crooked, they employed all kinds of destructive actions in order that they might gain power and wealth for themselves.
Now, as the psalmist stands before the God who loves justice and is just as he relates to him, he stands in awe. The contrast between the holy God and man is unbelievable. Tell me, where is fairness and justice among men? Have you ever met a person who is impeccably fair and just? Don't you always find something of unfairness and injustice in human actions?
God is holy. Because God is separated from injustice and we are his people, we must image him. That's who we’re created to be. But through sin we are not whom we were created to be. Yet God is approachable, even though he is total justice. What else can you and I do but to worship him. In that worship the psalmist asks God to give him the strength enabling him to become more holy, more just and fair. He is reminded of an unjust Moses, an unjust Aaron, and an unjust Samuel. They called upon their God to lead them to keep his holy will, the commands of God, more diligently.
You see, such standing in awe of God who is holy in his just relationship to his image bearers, causes one to worship this wonderful God. Such worship breeds in a person's heart a drive to become holy both before God and men.
The focus in relationship is shifted from what I can get from God to what I should do to honor my awesome God. And since in my imperfect life I can't do his will on my own power, I will call upon my God to enable me to truly honor him in my behavior, which becomes worship and adoration. Doing justice before God and my fellow human beings is one major area in life where I serve God who is awesome.
Right now don't you, as you see God who loves justice, want to worship him and pray that he will strengthen your weak self so you can move more and more to be a fair and just person? Don't you want to be more like the Master, as one hymn puts it?
III. Holy – being holy evokes worship
The psalmist has been using the term worship throughout this poem he wrote. Now in this last stanza he worships the reigning God who is supreme in power. His power cannot be compared to that of Adolph Hitler who caused most of the nations of the world to tremble and to be afraid of his military might and his diabolical mind.
Remember the fear Stalin and his successors in the Soviet Union instilled among people around this globe during the Cold War? Not the power of a proposed star wars, which one world power would like to create, can touch a candle to the power of God. In verse 3 we read: "the nations tremble in the face of God's power." Trembling occurs because there isn't a power or combination of powers which can even begin to compete with the power of God. Trembling comes because God reigns over everything and over all life. In his majesty he sits enthroned on high. God is great! Nothing gets anywhere near his greatness! He reigns over all nations and the entire universe.
Paul puts it this way in Ephesians 1, "The power he exerted in Christ is far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come."
No wonder the psalmist exclaims that all nations ought to praise God's great and awesome name, for he is holy. He is separated from all he has created in power and majesty. No wonder his heart pours out in praise just to tell God how wonderful he is. What a contrast God is when compared with any other would-be-power on this globe. Not even nature itself is comparable. And that in terms of power is something!
Think of the power of an erupting Mount St. Helens, which devastated an unbelievable number of square kilometers and which felled giant Douglas fir trees like tiny match sticks. Or think of man's manipulation of nature in the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and the toy it has become with today's nuclear power advances.
Do you stand in awe of human and nature's power? Well then, consider Almighty God whose power dwarfs any of these powers we've been naming. All of these are less than fragile toys or toothpicks by way of comparison.
At this very moment tell me, how do you relate to God? And remember his reigning power is always in moral excellence. He is holy.
But take good notice of what more the psalmist says. He points to the truth that Israel, God's people, was set aside to serve him and to do so through their obedience. But it was not so.
In verse 9 the holy God is revealed again as a forgiving God. Sure, he punished their misdeeds over and over again. But he forgave all their misdeeds when they were repentant. The rotten imperfection of his people stands in sharp contrast to his perfect love. Logically the two should never meet.
God should just destroy the whole business he created, for he is holy... he is separated from imperfection and wrong doing. But that's not the way it is. He forgives. What other response could the psalmist have but to exalt the Lord his God. At his holy mountain he worships God. He celebrates saving grace. He celebrates forgiveness, there in his temple.
When we do as the psalmist did, we especially celebrate saving grace, forgiveness, in the house of the Lord, our special place of worship. Forgiveness of our misdeeds (sin) is the hallmark of saving grace.
Tell me, are you at this moment praising God for his great and awesome name because he is holy? Are you seeking the God of justice and fairness? Are you worshiping the reigning God? Are you praising him for his forgiving love?
And translating this into New Testament terms, we are celebrating God's Son, the Lord Jesus Christ through whom forgiveness comes. It was to that end he lived the only perfect human life that walked on this earth and then he gave his perfect life on the cross to pay the price of sin.
And when you complete this beautiful experience of worship, leave this place with the challenge our Savior himself gives us, "Be holy even as I am holy."
Lord, our Triune God, how great and awesome you are. We are simply overwhelmed! We would be holy and separated from all wrong doing and sin. Forgive us our misdeeds. Holy Spirit, lead and strengthen us that we may become more like the Master. Indeed we want to worship and praise you.
Proposed Order of Service
Call to Worship – Isaiah 55 and Psalm 42
Leader: Come to the waters you who are thirsty; though you have no money, come! Buy wine and milk without money, and without cost.People: My soul thirsts for God, for the living God!Leader: Why spend money on what does not satisfy? Listen to me, and you will have good things to eat, and rich food to enjoy.
People: My soul hungers for God, for the living God!
Leader: Seek the Lord while he is still to be found; call to him while he is near.
People: My soul thirsts for God, for the living God!
Hymn #241, "This Is the Day"
(Mutual greetings – optional)
Praise Team Selections or Hymn (your choice)
The Rule for Living (Summary of the law): Matthew 22:37-40
Unison Prayer of Confession:
We confess to you, Lord, what we are: we are not the people we like others to think we are; we are sometimes afraid to admit even to ourselves what lies in the depths of our hearts.
But we cannot and do not want to hide our true selves from you. We believe you know us as we are, and yet, you love us.
Give us the courage to put our complete trust in your grace which delivers us from the paralysis of guilt into the freedom of forgiven people.
And for those who find forgiveness hard to accept, we ask you to break their bondage and set them free. Through Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
Assurance: 1 John 4:9-10
Hymn #489:1-3, "When Peace Like a River"
Hymn #165, "Send Out Your light"
Scripture: Psalm 99
Sermon: "He Is Holy"
Hymn #483, "How Great Thou Art"
Doxology (your choice)