God is holiness. God is pure justice, complete righteousness. He is holy above all things.
I thought about that when I heard of Mrs. Willis, the second-grade teacher, who asked her class, "What is cleanliness next to?" Little Johnny responded, "Impossible."
True, isn't it? It's hard to be completely clean. It's hard to have everything exactly right- in fact, it's impossible.
What would happen if someone looked at every nook and cranny of your life? If they examined every aspect? Critiqued each corner of your life? Would they find anger on the carpet? A lackadaisical heart lying on the couch? Towels dripping with gossip? Sheets and linens saturated with self-indulgence? Shades of jealousy drawn over the window to close out the light from your soul?
C. S. Lewis put it this way: "Try as hard as you can to be as good as you can for six weeks. Try to be perfect. Practice every virtue. Try really hard. You can almost deceive yourself for one week but not for six. Only then will you discover how truly bad you are."
In other words, Johnny was right-cleanliness is next to impossible.
And God hates uncleanliness. He hates to see anger boiling in the heart rather than the love that he placed there. God hates the lackadaisical heart that finds it hard to care about God, let alone anybody else. God hates gossip flowing freely off the tongue rather than encouragement or words of praise. God hates the self-indulgence that often replaces compassion and attention to the needs of the people around us. God hates the uncleanliness of the jealousy that chokes off our ability to have healthy relationships.
God hates uncleanness because he hates anything that sells us short-short of what we can be, short of our destiny. God hates anything that harms us or prevents us from being the people He designed us to be. God hates anything that chokes off the life He desires for us.
God hates uncleanliness because God is holiness and we are not. God has higher hopes, holy hopes for us, and yet we fall short. And let's be honest-cleanliness is next to impossible.
But God is holiness, yes. At the same time, though, give thanks because God is also pure mercy.
Remember that story from Max Lucado about the loving mother in Brazil named Maria? Maria had a beautiful daughter named Christina who wanted to leave their poor little village to enjoy the bright lights of Rio de Janeiro. Knowing her mother would never give her permission to leave, Christina packed a few things and left home one morning before dawn, leaving just a note behind. Maria, the mother, was heartbroken.
Maria quickly packed some things to go in search of her daughter. She stopped at a drugstore on the way to the bus station and spent most of her money having pictures of herself made in the photography booth. Maria knew Christina had no way of earning money, and she also knew that her daughter was too stubborn to ever give up. So Maria searched in the worst parts of Rio de Janeiro, her heart breaking knowing that her daughter would have to do unthinkable things just to be able to survive. At each place Maria stopped-street corners, lobbies of seedy hotels, bathroom mirrors-she would write a note on the back of a picture of herself, a photo, and tape it up for everybody to see.
It didn't take long for the money and the pictures to run out, so eventually Maria had to return to her village without Christina, heartsick that her daughter was lost in that urban jungle of Rio. A month or so later, Christina descended the hotel stairs of one of those seedy hotels, her young face tired, her bright eyes faded into dull, her countenance fallen, and now full of fear and pain.
A thousand times she had longed to trade these countless beds for her secure pallet back home in her little village, but now the village seemed so far away in so many ways. As Christina reached the bottom of the stairs, she noticed something familiar. There on the lobby bulletin board was a photo of her mother. Christina's eyes burned and her throat tightened. She removed the picture and written on the back of the photo was this message from her mother, Maria: "Christina, whatever you've done, wherever you've been, it doesn't matter. Please come home." And she did.
Give thanks. God is also pure mercy. He is not only holiness; he is pure mercy, and that means that you and I are forgiven, even when we fall short and God is disappointed by our uncleanliness. Still Psalm 103:12 reminds us that God casts our sins and disappointments away as far as east is from the west. God's character is to forgive. That's a promise, because God is pure mercy.
Here, again, the words of our Scripture:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ, for he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will, to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the one he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.
That's the best news of all. God lavishes grace; we merely receive. I think the best reminder of that is Communion. Communion, in my mind, is the sign of God's promise-his promise to forgive. God offers us His son. God cannot accept unholiness, so Jesus steps in. Jesus takes our place, so that when God looks at us, He sees Jesus instead. So it's Jesus' blood-spilled on the cross as He suffered and died-from His forehead, from His pores.
It's Jesus' body-beaten and bruised by soldiers and a mocking crowd - nailed to the cross to take our place. The women wailed. The crowd watched. The rulers sneered. The soldiers mocked, and even a criminal on the next-door cross insulted him.
But still Jesus took our place, because God loves us, and God is willing to do anything to buy us back from our sin. That's what redeemed means - to buy back a slave, to free a prisoner for ransom. Jesus' body and blood literally set us free.
Communion celebrates that lavish grace. God does that for us even though we are unclean; we are unholy. God does it simply because God is pure mercy, and we are forgiven.
In communion, I like to focus on that word "lavish." Lavish. Look it up in Webster's. It means superabundance, extravagant, wild and unrestrained. Lavish. It comes from the word for a "downpour of rain."
In Communion God lavishes his grace and mercy on you and me. There's a downpour of rain, a downpour of God's grace, a downpour of God's mercy, a downpour of God's goodness. Not because of what you have done, but in spite of what you have done. Not for who you are, but because of who God is. You are unclean, yes-only God is holiness. But when you ask, you are forgiven. God is pure mercy. That's a promise, a promise that he has made a place for you at his table. He has offered you his cup, his loaf. It's the proof. The body and blood of Christ are the proof of God's lavish grace raining down on you. You belong to him.
To the world, lavish means Ritz-Carlton, a day at the spa, fine jewels, plush towels, fine wines, rich desserts - extravagance, over the top!
But to God, lavish means a cross, a cup, and a loaf. That's a promise.
Please pray with me.
Almighty God, we stand before you today unworthy of your love, and yet basking in your forgiveness. You have lavished your grace on us. You have given us every spiritual blessing. You have even seated us in the heavenly places alongside Jesus Christ, not because of who we are, but because of who you are. And so today we simply say, "We love you. We praise you, and we thank you." In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.