The Holy Lord Sanctifies Us through His Holy Word.
The Second Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7
In Christ Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1Co. 1:30), dear fellow redeemed:
If you grew up in the same neighborhood with a person who later became famous, you would be proud that you knew him. If you were a relative of his, you would feel even more special. If you were his friend, you would enjoy certain benefits and have some influence in his life. But if you were a member of his family, you would have a share in his fame, his honor, and his success. The closer you were to him, the greater effect it would have on your life.
The same goes for our closeness to God. The closer we are to Him, the greater effect He has on our lives. But how do we get close to God? Some say that closeness to God is achieved through prayer; they never feel as close to Him as when they pray. Others think they can get close to God by living a good life. They hope that if they are good enough, God will be happy with them and bless them.
But in reality, there is nothing we can do to get ourselves closer to God. How could the unholy get closer by their own efforts to the Holy One? How could the impure and unclean enter the presence of Him who is and ever has been without sin? The unbelieving world seeks to bring God down to our level. The world supposes that if there is a God, He would generally support the personal decisions each of us makes. He is portrayed as a supportive god, a smiley god, a non-judgmental god. “He is a god I can relate to,” people think, “because he is a lot like me.”
That is not the God of the Bible. The true God does not approve of our sinful behavior. He wants us to turn from our sins and seek His forgiveness. This is clearly illustrated in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. If you are taking part in the two-year reading plan of the Bible that we started a couple months ago, you might be wading through Leviticus now. It doesn’t capture the attention like Genesis and Exodus do. Leviticus gives so many detailed rules and regulations that it’s hard to imagine living like the Israelites did. It seems like there was almost nothing they could do that would be considered clean in God’s sight.
And that was really the point. God wanted to impress on His people the difference between His holiness and their un-holiness. He wanted them to understand that they were not God. They were not free to do whatever their desires led them to do. Their only hope for salvation from sin and eternal life in heaven was through Him.
God emphasized this by the animal sacrifices He required for their sins. The people brought bulls, goats, and sheep for their sin offerings. These animals had to be without blemish. Whoever brought one laid his hand on the animal’s head before it was killed to signify the placing of his sins on the sacrifice. Then it was given as a burnt offering by the priests “to make atonement for him” (Lev. 1:4). The congregation of Israel was never done with sacrifices because it was never done with sin.
They were not holy enough to ascend to God, but the holy God was willing to come down to them. He settled in a cloud in the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle above the mercy seat. A chosen priest could only enter the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement. The priest entered on behalf of the people bringing their sins, and he exited on behalf of God bringing His holiness. The LORD promised the people that in this way, “You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins” (Lev. 16:30).
So closeness to God was initiated by Him. The people confessed their un-holiness, and the holy God came to them with forgiveness and healing. As impressive as it would have been to see a cloud stretch down from the heavens and drop into the Most Holy Place, God had something greater planned. The Father would send down His holy Son, not hidden in a cloud but covered in our flesh. He came to offer Himself as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. No more slaughtering of animals for burnt offerings. No more sprinkling of blood on the LORD’s altar and on the mercy seat.
When Jesus breathed His last on the cross, the evangelists report that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mat. 27:51, Mar. 15:38, Luk. 23:45). This was not the result of a natural phenomenon. God did it. He showed by the tearing of the curtain that holiness should not be sought from the LORD anymore in the Most Holy Place. Holiness would be found in the presence of His only Son, who by His death had destroyed death, atoned for sin, and crushed Satan’s head.
After His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples He would be with them always, to the end of the age (Mat. 28:20). That remained true even after He visibly ascended into heaven. He was still with them, but how could they be assured of His presence? Jesus told them and all believers after them exactly where He could be found. He could be found always in His Word and Sacraments.
These are the ways our Lord Jesus still draws near to us today. These are the ways He imparts His holiness to us who are unholy. Like the priest who entered the Most Holy Place bringing the people’s sins, so we bring our sins to the Lord both here in church and in our personal confession. And the Lord brings His holiness to us through His Word. This is how we are sanctified by God throughout our lives. This is how the Holy Spirit makes us holy. It is all done through His holy Word, and it is all done by Him.
But we can reject this sanctifying work. We can keep ourselves from His holiness by giving ourselves over to unholy pursuits. Paul mentions one of these unholy pursuits in today’s text: sexual immorality. Sexual immorality is any kind of sexual activity outside of marriage. Our culture thinks that “committed” and “consensual” are the appropriate standards for sex. God says it is marriage between one man and one woman. That is the only place to exercise sexual passion in a God-pleasing way. St. Paul writes that the faithful should pursue “holiness and honor” in sexual matters. They should not operate “in the passion of lust like the Gentiles—unbelievers—who do not know God.”
There are other ways to reject the Lord’s sanctifying work beyond actively pursuing sin. One is to keep ourselves from the holy Word. It is to place a higher priority on any number of other things, whether that be family time or work or athletic competition or recreation. Those things are all good in their own way, but they are certainly not better than God’s presence through His Word. They are earthly things, temporary things. God’s Word imparts eternal things.
At the same time, it is possible to be in the presence of the Lord but still reject His holiness. We could be every Sunday church-goers, but we are simply going through the motions. We are not particularly troubled by our sins. We are not all that interested in changing our sinful habits. We feel like we are pretty holy already. The holy Lord is present here through His Word and Sacraments, but we can deny His work through our self-righteousness and pride.
So here we are, each of us aware of our own sins. By nature we are an unholy people. We have done the things God said we must not do, and we have not done the things we should have. But the Lord does not turn us sinners away. He comes still to wash our unclean hearts and minds. He comes to cleanse us from our sins of thought, word, and deed, whether those be sexual sins, sins of spiritual laziness, or sins of pride.
It does not matter how you have defiled yourself in the past. You have not committed a sin that God does not forgive. King David was an adulterer, a murderer, and a liar. The apostle Paul before his conversion worked for the imprisonment and murder of Christians. These men were forgiven of their sins, and so are you.
The Lord is not here to destroy you. He is here in grace to forgive you and bless you. He is not ashamed to meet you in your un-holiness. He is not ashamed to be associated with you. You are more than just an acquaintance of His, more than a distant relative, even more than His friend. You are God’s own child, and you share flesh and blood with Christ your Brother.
He does not wait for you to get yourself holy enough to come into His presence. That would never happen. He brings His holiness to you. He sanctifies you. The Holy Lord Sanctifies You through His Holy Word. The closer you are to Him because of His coming to you, the more you are changed and the more His work is done in you.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture of the tabernacle of Israel)