About 20 years ago I was asked to preach at a conference on the topic of the holiness of God.
I thought long and hard about where to go in scripture for a text. I immediately thought of Isaiah 6 and the thought expressed by the hunchback in the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, who, when seeing Esmerelda, says, “I never knew how ugly I was until I saw how beautiful you are!”
In the end I settled on the Song of Moses and the Lamb recorded in the shortest chapter in Revelation.
“Great and marvellous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the nations. Who will not fear you, Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Revelation 15:3–4).
Holiness can get a bad press; it tends to be viewed in negative terms.
We live at a time when the ultimate put down is being ‘Holier than Thou’. It conjures up the image of sanctimonious phoniness or of a cold sterile spirituality. An image that the church has often done all too little to challenge or dispel.
Holiness is what God uniquely is. It sets him apart from every creature. Looking at him we see the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (to steal the movie title), that shines brilliantly in a dark universe.
What particularly struck me in preparing that sermon is that there is something beautiful about holiness. Here the beauty of God’s holiness is demonstrated by turning it into a beautiful melody.
I was reminded of that today in reading the 19-year-old Jonathan Edwards preaching on the Way of Holiness:
“Jesus Christ, he has been with us in the flesh and as one of us he has appeared in the form of a servant, and we have seen his holiness brightly shining forth in all his actions. We have seen his holy life; we have a copy drawn, and an example set for us. Now holiness is a conformity to this copy; he that copies after Jesus Christ, after that copy which he has set us and which is delivered to us by the evangelists, is holy.”
“If you feel Christ’s sermon upon the Mount engraved on the fleshly tables of your hearts, you are truly sanctified.”
That is what we might call the beauty of holiness shining forth in human lives.
Developing this theme in one of his notebooks, Edwards uses the simple analogy of a small flower.
“The soul of a true Christian appeared like a little white flower as we see in the spring of the year; low and humble on the ground, opening its bosom to receive the pleasant beams of the sun’s glory; rejoicing as it were, in a calm rapture …”
What a remarkable thing it is that we can preach about Christians being able to see the beauty of holiness shine in their own lives. What a profoundly daunting and exhilarating thing it is to be urged by Peter (echoing Leviticus):
“Be holy because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).
What a terrifying yet glorious prospect.