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Streams of Living Water: The Holiness Stream

March 2, 2008

John 17:13-19

This morning, we continue our series of messages, Streams of Living Water. We are exactly at the halfway point, and we will finish this series on Easter Sunday. I hope you are not feeling waterlogged. This series has been special for me; the sermons have been quite challenging.

Little children make up their own words. One of our sons, early in his life before he could talk, had a word for water. That word actually sounded like the noise water makes when it is bubbling. When he wanted a drink of water, he would ask for it by making a bubbling sound. If he saw water running from the faucet into the bathtub, he made the same sound. I remember the year we took him on a family vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The first time he saw the Atlantic Ocean, he made that bubbling sound repeatedly.

I feel a little like that when preparing these messages. So much should be included in the sermons, yet I do not know all there is to know about this topic. I soon realized that I needed to include stories in these messages because the concepts can be so difficult to understand. You might very well have a deer-in-the-headlights look if I did not.

Today, we going to focus on holiness. I know the very minute you hear the word holiness, you have an almost instinctive aversion to regarding yourself as a holy person. Stick with me. This is an important message, one we all need to hear.

This week, Clare and I attended a conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This conference was called Renovare, the Latin word for renewal. I had met the leader of that conference, Richard Foster, for the first time in 1977, on an elevator in a hotel. We were both in Washington, D.C., for the Christian Life Commission Conference. At that time, he had just published the remarkable book The Celebration of Discipline, a book that has now sold over a million copies. Both Christianity Today and Christian Century have named The Celebration of Discipline as one of the top ten books of the twentieth century.

I sometimes say to Clare that a force field encircles Spartanburg. Sometimes it is very hard for me to break that force field and get beyond the city limits. It took me a day longer to get away from Spartanburg than I had planned. Before I left, I wanted to see a person in the hospital who was having surgery. I was swamped with so many other errands to complete, yet I knew this conference would be important for me.

On our drive to Chapel Hill, we stopped in Burlington, North Carolina, for gasoline. I paid $3.2199 a gallon for gasoline. I believe that is the highest price I have ever paid to buy gasoline anywhere. I did not even need a full tank of gas, and the purchase was over $60.00. I was grumbling about it a little bit, I guess. I went into the service station though I do not really know how you can call it a “service station.” There was no service to be had. Basically, the attendants sell lottery tickets and charge $3.2199 a gallon for gasoline.

Clare wanted a bottle of water, so I bought her one. I got a Diet Mountain Dew. Both drinks cost about the same. When we arrived at the conference, we saw crates, covered in shrink wrap, loaded with bottled water. The conference had the usual calories and caffeine that everybody seems to gravitate toward at any kind of church event, but bottled water was also available for those who preferred that beverage.

I was thinking about how thirsty humans can be. I remembered the day saw a man drink water out of a tire track down near McClellanville in the Francis Marion National Swamp. He actually got down on his hands and knees and lapped the water out of a tire track like a dog. I guess everyone does not require pure water, but I want my water to be pure. Most of us do. We want pure physical water, but we also want pure spiritual water. Psalm 42:1 says, “As a deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for the living God.” Coincidently, deer have had a lot to do with water contamination, especially in the high mountains. At one time, it was possible to hike in the high mountains and drink water right out of a stream. You could drink your fill of that cool spring water without any fear of contaminants.

I was taking a day hike in the Shining Rock Wilderness about two years ago. I was looking forward to locating one of these cold water springs, a place where I could enjoy water pouring right out of the face of the rock. When I reached a spot where I had drunk pure mountain water on a previous hiking trip, I saw a sign that read Warning! Water Contaminated. This water, located almost 6,000 feet above sea level, has been contaminated by a parasite carried by deer. Of course, humans had contaminated the water at lower levels; the deer had taken it from there to higher levels.

The idea of drinking bottled water first took hold when an entire municipality in the state of Michigan discovered that their water supply was contaminated. Forty thousand people had to drink bottled water, and the water craze caught on with others. I had bought that bottle of water at the service station, and we had seen all that bottled water at the conference. The gasoline that I bought on my trip to Chapel Hill cost $3.2199. I did the math. Do you know that bottled water costs about $4.10 a gallon? We do not think of water costing that much because we buy it in smaller containers.

Bottled water is a fifteen billion dollar-a-year business in the United States. Research conducted in 2004 showed that about 103 brands were available at that time. More than 600 brands of bottled water exist today. The increase is partly due to bottling companies making what they call “designer” water. Two of the competitive brands you know best are Dasani, bottled by Coca-Cola, and Aquafina, bottled by Pepsi. Coca-Cola and Pepsi get their water out of the tap, just like you do in your own kitchen. They put it in bottles and charge you about $4.10 a gallon for it. Many more options are now available because bottled water comes in designer brands – fizzed, filtrated, fortified, and flavored. Some brands are very high in sodium. Some are very high in calories because they are filled with sugar. Some have artificial sweeteners.

One day when I went to rehab, I saw a man walking, walking, walking, trying to burn calories on a treadmill. He was quite overweight and needed to be on a treadmill. In his hand was a bottle of this “designer” water. The next time I was in a store, I looked at the label on that particular brand of water and saw that it contained over 100 calories. There is no way he walked off the calories he was putting in his body while on the treadmill. It was a negative return for all of his energy.

We are thirsty people. We thirst. We pant. We pant for pure, living water in a spiritual sense. We are so prone to accept substitutes. Sometimes bottled water is necessary.

Our son Kris went on a trip the entire length of the Amazon River, starting at Belem near the Atlantic Ocean. He traveled more than two weeks on what is called a hammock boat. Passengers hang a hammock between posts, using it to store all their earthly possessions in the daytime and to sleep on at night. Someone advised Kris to drink only bottled water on that trip, so he purchased some. He did just fine for about half the trip; but then he got very, very sick. If I use the expression Montezuma’s Revenge, you will know just how sick he was. He could not figure out the reason for his illness because he was drinking only bottled water. Then he noticed that the number of bottles that had been discarded in the recycling bin was diminishing. He did some stealth investigation and found out that at night the crew of the boat was refilling those bottles with water out of the Amazon River. They were replacing the tops and selling them as freshly bottled water. No wonder he became sick.

We need pure water. We seek it. We pant for it. Where do we find a stream of pure, uncontaminated water for the human soul? That stream is called holiness. We are afraid of the word holiness. None of us likes to be thought of as holy. In fact, we have an aversion to that. The clear teaching of the Bible, especially in Leviticus 19:2, is, “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy.” You know “Holy, Holy, Holy,” a hymn containing lines that are so important for our understanding of holiness. Listen: “Thou alone art holy. There is none beside Thee” (I Samuel 2:2). Holiness is for God alone, yet we have this teaching that says, “As God is holy, we are to be holy.”

Clare and I came home from Chapel Hill yesterday on back roads, without ever getting on the interstate. While driving through Asheboro, North Carolina, we passed a used car lot. A sign out in front of the business read, “Everybody drives a used car.” Think about that. The very moment you drive a new car off the lot, it becomes a used car. If you try to resell it, you cannot imagine the depreciation that has already occurred since the time you drove it off the lot. You do not have to drive it very long before nicks, dents, and road grime blemish the car you bought new. Everybody drives a used car.

When it comes to holiness, we all have our blemishes, our flaws. We all have the sins that keep us from being holy as God is holy. How are we to understand this? Certainly it is true that there is “none righteousness, no not one,” as Paul affirmed in Romans 3:10. We have this teaching here, though, that we are to be holy. We find in the New Testament the Sermon on the Mount, which I believe is an echo from this teaching in Leviticus. We find this lesson from the lips of Jesus: “You shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I do not know how that strikes you, but that is even harder to understand. How can you possibly be perfect? The word that is used in the Greek New Testament, teleios, is not best translated as perfect or perfection. It is best translated as complete or completeness.

I want to make three points about holiness. Basically, I am going to tell you what holiness is and at the same time, tell you what holiness is not.

First, holiness means to be different. “Holy, Holy, Holy” means “Different, Different, Different.” We are to be different. This does not mean that we are to have a “holier than thou” attitude, which is what the Pharisees tried. They were unable to make much difference in the lives of people because they set themselves apart from others. The word Pharisee means “separated ones.” They set themselves apart because of their “holier than thou” attitude.

In the passage that serves as our text today, Jesus is saying of his disciples, “You are to be in the world, but not of the world.” I cannot think of a better illustration for that concept than one I have already used with you. If you have a boat, you want it to be in the water, but not of the water. A boat is not a boat unless it is in the water. It is just a wooden structure. A Christian is not a Christian unless he or she is in the real world. When you put your boat in the water, you do not want water in the boat. When you put a Christian in the world, you do not want the world in the Christian. To be in the world but not of the world is very much like being in a boat that is in the water but not of the water. A boat in the water that sinks becomes a part of the lake’s bottom. The boat has to be in the water, but not of the water.

Jesus taught us that Christians must be the same. We live in the real world because that is the only way we can make a difference. We cannot be separated, apart. Some people believe that a monastic way of life or an acetic way of life presents a problem because it requires withdrawing from the real world.

A second point I want to make is that being holy means that we live a life of virtue. Basically we should cultivate virtues, good habits. It is important to remember that this cannot be a bootstrap theology. We do not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but we must make an attempt for it to happen. Developing a life of virtue requires effort on our part, but we cannot do it without the gift of God’s grace. We attempt to be holy through good habits. Basically, holiness is living a life that functions well in a dysfunctional world. It certainly means that we know and obey the Ten Commandments, but it is not just living by the law. This does not mean that we make a promise to be sweet and never say a bad word. It is not just living by rules and regulations. It is life that is lived from the inside out.

We can live a life of virtue if we practice, practice, practice. No one can sit down at a piano and play that instrument without practice. We cannot live the Christian life the way God intends us to live it unless we practice living that Christian life. The world will not offer us any help with this. It does not think that way. The world is going to work against our efforts, offering bad habits and tempting us away from a life of virtue. The world thinks in terms of vice. I really doubt that you will ever see a television program called Miami Virtue. Living this life of virtue is a gift of the grace of God, but it does require our effort.

I want to talk for a moment about James, a brother to Jesus. You recall that at first James did not believe in Jesus. John 7:5 says, “For even his own brothers did not believe in him,” but the book of Acts states that James is very much a part of the early church. What happened to change James’ opinion? You can almost miss this if you do not carefully read I Corinthians 15, where Paul talks about the resurrection appearances of Jesus. Paul tells us about an appearance that is not recorded anywhere else, an occasion that the resurrected Christ appeared to James, his younger brother. I can understand why a boy might not believe that his older brother was the Messiah. With Jesus’ appearance, however, James believed and became a leader of the early church. Paul recognizes James as an apostle.

In 62 A.D., the high priest put James to death by stoning. Jewish leaders of the time objected to the high priest’s actions. Josephus tells us that James enjoyed a good reputation, even among the Jews. He was known as “James the Just,” “James the Righteous,” or “James the Holy One.” Accounts state that his knees were calloused like those of a camel because he spent much time on his knees, praying. We know him best from the little book he wrote, included in the New Testament. The book of James mentions Jesus fewer times than any other book in the Bible. It resembles the teachings of Jesus more than any other book and sounds similar to the Sermon on the Mount. Some have called this book the “Proverbs of the New Testament.” It focuses on believing, behaving, having faith, showing effort, being responsible, and responding to Christ by living a virtuous life, one that is pure and undefiled. James addresses wisdom that comes from above, wisdom that is different from earthly wisdom.

The third point I want to make is that this life of holiness is a long, long process. Paul writes, “I am confident that he who begins a good work in you will see it through to the end” (Philippians 1:6). You will complete that work, though there will be many false starts, many “beginning agains.” Holiness is a life-long process of being transformed.
My mother gave all eight children in our family Scripture to memorize at the beginning of each summer. The year before I was in the seventh grade, she asked me to memorize Romans 12:1-2. The following summer, she asked me to memorize the same passage. I said, “Mama, you gave me that one last year.” She answered, “Kirk, you memorized it, but I want you to know it by heart.” She did not want it just in my head; she wanted it in my heart.

Before I was in the ninth grade, she again gave me Romans 12:1-2 to memorize. To this day, I hold it deep in my heart: “I beseech you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this world.” Do you know what that passage means? We are not to let the world squeeze us into its mold. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God.”

People who live a holy life never think that they do. They are acutely aware of their own sin, very conscious of the flaws in their life. These people do not have a sour face. They have a wonderful sense of humor because they are able to see the irony in life, the irony in the world.

I went to Chapel Hill to see Richard Foster, whom I had not seen since 1977. Thirty-one years ago, Foster was a shy, young Quaker pastor. Now, Richard Foster is old and gray. I do not know what happened to him, but the same thing happened to me. Foster has a Native American background with the Ojibwa. He has identified with his heritage. His gray hair is pulled back in a ponytail that goes all the way to his waist. In the movie Dances with Wolves, a Native American, a member of the Sioux tribe, was named Kicking Bird. When other characters in the movie refer to Kicking Bird, they consider him to be a holy man. Richard Foster is a holy man. He is very, very ordinary and quite extraordinary. I have read his books. He now has one of mine.

When Clare and I got home last night about 9:00, I went to the kitchen sink and got a drink of water out of the faucet. I thought about where that water had come from – the Pacolet River, Lake Bowen. The Spartanburg Water System had certainly added some chemicals and filtered it, but it was refreshing.

Where do you find this stream of living water, this holiness stream? You find it right here in your own heart. It is not external. It is internal. He who began a good work in you is going to see it through to completion. God is working in our lives to help us become the people He wants us to be. His template, his model for us, is Jesus.

“You shall be holy as your Father in heaven is holy.” That passage does not mean that we are to have “a holier than thou” attitude. It does not mean that we are to withdraw from the world. It certainly does not mean that we are going to incorporate things of the world. It does mean that we must live in this world with a sense of virtue, an understanding that God is always at work, transforming us and helping us be who He wants us to be. Remember the words the choir sang earlier as a prayer earlier, words that are so appropriate: “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. With thanksgiving, I will be a living sanctuary for you.”

© 2008 Kirk H. Neely


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