The Definition of Holiness

Sermon Text  – 02.26.2020, Ash Wednesday

[Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 and 2 Corinthians 6:3-7]

          There once was a farmer who went to the Farmer’s Market every week to sell his crops. Among other things, he sold cottage cheese and apple butter that was made on his farm. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever had apple butter – it’s delicious. Cottage cheese is white, basically, and apple butter is more of a brown color – very different. He carried them in two large tubs, and he ladled the cottage cheese or apple butter into smaller containers the customers bought. One day he got to the Farmer’s market and discovered he’d forgotten one of his ladles. He felt he had no choice but to use the one ladle for both products. And before long, he couldn’t tell which tub was which. Gross. If you try to use a ladle in cottage cheese that was just dipped in apple butter – pretty soon everything gets mixed in. If you try to use your words for good, right after using them to hurt someone – pretty soon everything gets mixed in.

          Actually, this point was illustrated really well by a few Christian comedians called the Skit guys. Let’s see what they have to say about it. [Start the video – Just a little bit]. Tonight we’re going to take a bit of time and talk about the definition of holiness – with the goal of preparing ourselves to get just a little bit closer to God.

          So we open our text for tonight, (and I’m going to be working mostly in Matthew chapter six if you want to follow along).  And I noticed a trend in the words. Our scripture lesson talks about three big things – giving to the needy, prayer and fasting. All good things, and what I found is that it’s the same piece of advice three times for different situations. It starts with giving to the needy. Chapter 6 verse 2, it says [read it]. And then we move over to prayer, where it says in verse 5 [read it], and finally we move over to fasting, where it says in verse 16, [read it]. And there’s nothing wrong with fasting, there’s nothing wrong with prayer, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with giving to the needy – but there is a way we can twist a good thing for selfish reasons. See, there is deep within each of us a desire to be seen. We crave recognition, validation, acceptance. Part of us wants the world to know that we are valuable, that we are worth something. And the response to all three ways that we twist a good thing is the same. For giving to the needy it says, in verse 3, [read v3-4]. And for prayer, verse 6 [read it]. And finally for fasting, verse 18 [read it]. Do you hear that trend? God, your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. God sees you.
          Motives matter – we do a lot of things for a lot of reasons. A while back, I was watching the Academy Awards, and I mean – the outfits, the fame, the celebrity, the glamour. And I realized that people make movies for very different reasons. Movies by themselves are not a bad thing – but there are better and worse motives. Some folks make movies just for fun, some make movies for art, some make movies because the story needs to be told, and others make movies just to win awards. Strategic – they pick a hot button issue, or a crowd pleaser and that’s the one that they bet on – this will get me fame and awards and recognition. And the Academy Awards are sort of the standard for the movie industry, just like writers try to win Pulitzers, and scientists try to win nobel prizes, and it seems like there are awards and industry standards for every group – for banking and financial management and auto sales, newscasters – everyone has their form of award. We crave approval, we all look for rewards and acknowledgement from some higher entity. But then I read this scripture for tonight, and I realize that God is inviting us to view him as the reward-giver. We want to be accepted and loved and recognized and known – God gives us that. Not on top of the world’s congratulations, but over and above – instead of the world’s approval. Don’t look for approval of the world when you do things – instead look for God’s approval.

          The scripture continues and says, [read v19-21]. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. So in the modern world, we can define treasure to mean anything that is precious to us. Money, Time, your presence – actually being somewhere. When we realize where we put our money and our time and ourselves – then we realize what our treasure is. And when we figure that out – we see what is precious to us, where our heart is. When we seek someone’s approval, we desire their attention – we are giving them a piece of our treasure, a place of authority in our life. So take a second and think – whose opinion do you care about? Why? Are you giving them too much of your treasure? Do you care about their opinion more than God’s? There’s nothing magical about fasting, about holding off from something, even giving something up for Lent – it’s just one way of telling God that your priority at that moment is to be alone with him. That everything else will wait, because you want to store up your treasure with the one who matters.

The word Holy, best I can figure, comes from the Hebrew word Qodesh, which means to be set apart. For something to be Holy, it has to be set apart. As Christians we believe that God loves each and every one of us in a personal, intimate way – God calls us to live a holy life, a life of holiness. God sets us apart. God sets us aside for something better than the best the world has to offer. It’s like we can look at the best the world has to offer, and say, nope – I’m waiting for something even better. I’m saved, I’m set aside, I’m reserved for perfection, redemption, glorification – paradise. It’s like the showcase showdown on the Price Is Right. Remember that show? I think it’s still going on – with Drew Carry. At the very end of the show, they have two great showcases. And they reveal the first one, and it’s full of all this incredible stuff and they have a choice – go for that one, or wait and see the second showcase. And the first showcase might be incredible, stuffed with amazing things – but you know the second showcase is the one with the car. The good news this evening is that we have been set aside by God, because no matter how incredible that first showcase is, no matter how great the treasures of the world might seem – we have something better coming. That’s what holiness is – to be set aside for God’s glory. To trust in his promise when he says that the coming glory is going to be so incredible that it will make this life seem like nothing more than dust and ashes. God calls us to be holy, he sets us aside for perfection.

I think the simplest form of this is realizing the truth that God sees you. Why is it that little kids always want their parents to be watching? Dad are you watching? Mom, did you see that, did you see what I did? Do you love me? Are you proud of me? Do you approve of me? I guess there’s two pieces of good news tonight. First, that God sets us aside for perfection – but also the good news tonight is that your Father in heaven sees you. They say it over and over in chapter 6 of Matthew. It says, “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” When you give to the needy, Your Father in heaven sees you. When you pray, alone, by yourself – your Father sees you. When you fast, when you give things up to focus on God, your Father sees you. It’s a simple thing, but it’s all we really need. Your Father in heaven is watching, he loves you and he sees you. God invites us to view him as the reward-giver. It doesn’t matter how the rest of the world rates you. God is the reward giver, and we should look to him for approval, rewards, acknowledgement. God gives us that. We have been set aside by God – so ask yourself a difficult question, who are you trying to impress with your life? Whose approval do you crave? Now there is one objection I’ve heard. Some folks say, I don’t need anyone’s approval. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I live for me, and not for anyone else. Well that’s… worse. To chase someone else’s approval, besides God’s, is a form of idolatry. You take a group, organization or person and set them up as the reward giver, the fulfiller of your life – a false god that you can worship. And to put yourself in that spot is to set yourself up as an idol in your own life – and when you fail, it’s not just some false idol that disappoints and falls apart – but it’s you who falls apart. God is the true reward-giver, the only opinion that truly matters. God sees you, and that’s all we need.


We are set apart by God for God, and so the application for tonight is that we must find a way to be set apart. Don’t blend in and disappear into the distractions of the world. Don’t get lost in that first showcase – keep your eye on the prize. Live for God, find a way to be set apart. Don’t use the same ladle in the cottage cheese and the apple butter. To be a Christian, to live into the definition of holiness, means to be set apart. There are two main pieces of the Christian life – Love of God, and love of neighbor. It’s the two commandments that we live by. Love your God and love your neighbor. John Wesley had this method for us to be set apart. He called it the means of grace, the ways that we can experience God. And he split it into two categories that we call acts of piety and acts of mercy. Acts of piety – ways we can show our love of God. and Acts of Mercy – which are ways we can show that we love our neighbor. So think about your life – where do you need to grow in the next forty days in your relationship with God? Do you need to work on your piety, your faith? With things like prayer, reading the bible, communion, fasting (cutting out distractions to focus on God, living in community, healthy living – these are the acts of piety. Or do you need to work on your mercy? On reaching beyond yourself, to love others? Things like doing good, visiting the sick and those in prison, feeding and clothing people – things that reach beyond just you and God. Think about it – find a way to be set apart for God in your life.


See there’s two sides to the coin. The modern world we live in is the single most distracting and stimulating environment in history. We live in an extremely loud and flashy age of instant gratification – and that can make it really hard to hear the still small voice of God in the chaos. On the other side of the coin, as Christians, we have never had so many different tools and methods and options in front of us to connect to God. Yes, the enemy is shouting louder than he has ever had to in history – but we have never had so many tools to overcome and shut him down, to do God’s work in the world.  I was at senior high bible study a couple years ago, and I told them get out your bibles and turn to this page. So of course, three of them get out their phones – and one of them shows me an app on her phone that not only has the bible in there – but it will read it to her at the click of a button.  The other scripture lesson for tonight comes from 2 Corinthians, and it encourages us to find a way to live for God, find a way to be holy, to be set apart – even in hardship. The writer Paul talks about all the things that have happened to him and his friends – it is not always easy to be set apart by God. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God;” [v4-7a]. Yes, there are obstacles. God did not set you apart for the easy life, God did not set you apart to be lazy or sloppy or wishy-washy – God set you apart for holiness, for purity, for perfection. Find a way to be set apart, even in the midst of struggle and difficulty.

At different levels, in different ways, at different moments in life we all crave attention in some way, acceptance, approval. We want to be seen, we want to be known, we want to be loved. The definition of Holiness is that God sees you, he knows you, he loves you. He has set you aside for paradise, for perfection, for his unending mercy and compassion. God sees you, and that’s all you need. And so I’ll leave you with this – May you find a way in the simple things and the small moments to be set apart for God. May you find your treasure in your loving Father’s approval. And may you endure, even in hardships to live for God every single day.  Amen.