The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 13, 2018
With God we might feel jubilant.
But with God should we feel comfortable?
The witness of today’s scripture, and many others, is that we should feel comfortable enough that we can trust Him to welcome us just as we are in our imperfection and to bless us just as He is in His unmerited generosity – but not so comfortable that we take His welcome and grace for granted and fail to feel awed reverence and fear before His surpassing greatness. For the Lord God is, the Bible tells us again and again, “holy”.
God’s holiness means that He is so high above us and so far beyond us that a measureless difference lies between Him and us. Being eternal in existence, infinite in capacity and perfect in righteousness, nothing and no one comes close to His majesty and magnificence. The Lord God belongs to another, separate category of being altogether. Thus, to interact with Him in an overly comfortable, chummy, casual or off-handed way is to disrespect Him and to do Him a disservice. He deserves the reverent praise and the fervent worship we give no other.
The Psalms numbered 95 through 100 consist of six consecutive choral pieces whose lyrics exult in God’s enthronement as Ruler over all. Psalm 99 extols the holiness in God’s reign over the world at large, over the community of His servants, and over each individual member of that community.
Psalm 99 divides itself into three distinct sections pertaining to each of those three arenas of divine governance. Each section ends with the same affirmation of God’s holiness: “Holy is he!”, “Holy is he!” and finally “the Lord our God is holy!” Each also follows the same pattern of exclamation and exhortation – of a declaration of some particulars about God’s holiness and a demand for a right response to it in praise and worship that extols this enthroned and holy King.
Verses 1-3 revolve around God’s holiness in ruling over the whole world. God’s holiness is reason for all the peoples of the earth to “tremble” and for the earth itself to “quake”. It is also reason for those heavenly beings called the “cherubim” – not the chubby, cuddly cupids of religious art, but the fierce and frightening warriors of God’s army – to bow in deference and subservience to the great and glorious King who “sits enthroned upon” them. (As a symbol of the Lord’s subjection of the cherubim under His sovereign authority, solid-gold statues of them bowing down before Him surrounded the Ark of the Covenant, the ark which the rabbis deemed the platform on which God’s seat of authority rested.)
God’s holiness manifests itself in the right ordering of all creation, including those creatures closest to Him, under His rule and in support of His honor. Every being occupies its proper place in that order by bowing down before Him to lift Him up in praise and service. Holy is he!
While verses 1-3 revolve around God’s holiness in ruling over the whole world; verses 4-5 revolve around God’s holiness in ruling over the community of His human servants. This second section celebrates how God “established equity” and “executed justice and righteousness” – “in Jacob”, “Jacob” being, as the name of the father of God’s chosen people, also the name of his descendants throughout the generations, including those within what the Bible calls the “new Israel”, the church.
This means that the God who is enthroned in holiness over heaven and earth is also enthroned in holiness in the midst of the human beings committed to obeying and serving Him. Such people both encounter and show God’s holiness as they do right by each other – as they honor their ethical responsibilities for each other, give each other their due and help each other prosper. Their experiencing the blessed reality of this community of mutual respect and concern should move them to extol and worship the Lord. Holy is he!
Verses 1-3 revolve around God’s holiness in ruling over the whole world; verses 4-5 revolve around it in ruling over His community; and the Psalm’s third and last section, verses 6-9, revolve around it in ruling over each individual member of the community. Though the Psalm illustrates its point by talking about three specific heroes of the faith — Moses, Aaron and Samuel – it is speaking here about all God’s servants. The three are but examples, it says, “among those who call on [God’s] name”. All of God’s servants, from the least of them to the greatest, encounter God’s holiness in personal experience: In holy faithfulness to His promises, God answers their prayers; in holy kindness, He shares with them His wisdom and gives them statutes to follow into life at its best; in holy grace, He forgives them and avenges all wrongdoing, even their own.
These encounters of individuals with God’s holiness should move them to worship Him for the blessing of His involvement with them in personal and intimate ways. It is not without point that the Psalm’s motto phrase, “Holy is he!” (repeated in verses 3 and 5), is now in verse 9, the Psalm’s last verse, expanded and given warmth, so as to read (in its actual word-order) “holy is the Lord our God!”. Though the holiness of God is not thereby diminished, His holiness is brought down to the heart-to-heart level of a relationship in which God belongs to us even as we belong to Him. He is indeed above us and beyond us; but He is also, against all our deserving, near us and even within us, working the wonders of His holy love in the lives of everyone who lets Him.
Well we may worship God for His holiness. Well we may gasp in wonder, fall prostrate in awe and erupt in adoring praise.
Under God, with God, in God, we have possibilities we could never create on our own. We can know greater happiness, greater strength of heart, greater impact than we ever before envisioned. And in the process we can actually become holy as He is holy! Let us pray.