Holy Ground

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on January 2, 2022. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, as we worship in your presence, Lord, help us to be mindful of you. Help us to be mindful of the holy ground on which we stand. Help us to be mindful of the way that you have created space for us.

Sometimes, I think we take for granted the fact that you are with us, that you are present, and that you are continuing in creation, and I hope, Lord, that as we worship, our hearts are with you and our glory is to you. I hope that as we worship, we are not taking for granted the things that you have given us and the things that you are doing in our lives and the fact that you are present with us, Lord.

We love you, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

[Talking about microphones while fixing the lapel mic.]

I want to talk about holy ground this morning. You probably noticed. I want to talk about our perception of holy ground, which is not mentioned very often in the Bible, really, but before I get into that, I need to talk about something else.

I need to talk about disgust. I need to talk about the way that we perceive purity and impurity. It’s skewed, especially if you grew up in purity cultures — that is, cultures where purity was emphasized as a form of righteousness.

What often happens in purity cultures is we teach people that purity means “not being contaminated by ‘sin.’” In other words, impurity ruins purity. That’s a common thing that people have as a way of thinking, as a way of approaching disgust, even in non-religious contexts.

For example, if a person hands you a glass with something to drink in it, and they put something in it that’s disgusting to you, you probably won’t drink it. Even if they take the thing out, whatever it is — a bug, dirt — even if they filter that drink, like water, through something that purifies it — even if you know that there are no more contaminants in it, most people will still not want to drink it, because they saw that there once was impurity in it.

This is a disgust mechanism that is actually learned, not because the mechanism itself is learned but because what we are disgusted by is learned, which is why you can you go to one culture where they eat a food you would never eat and you can go to another culture where they eat food that other people would eat. What we are disgusted by is learned, and the way that we respond to that disgust is usually that the disgusting thing contaminates non-disgusting things. And it’s usually complete in its contamination; impure things contaminate pure things.

And so purity culture teaches us that we must avoid all impurity. Otherwise, we, ourselves, become impure, and I’m not saying that you can’t find some justification for that in scripture, but while we consider “holy ground,” I think it’s important to understand that the opposite is true.

Holy ground doesn’t follow the rules of traditional or conventional disgust. Let’s look, for example, at Exodus, chapter 3. In Exodus, chapter 3, we find Moses at the burning bush, which is a story many people are familiar with. In Exodus, chapter 3, starting in verse 1, it says,

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

Exodus 3:1-5, NIV

Moses comes into the presence of the Lord through this burning bush, but keep in mind that God is the one who called Moses over. The bush lights on fire; it doesn’t say why the bush is on fire. God appears to people in other places in scripture, and he doesn’t lite things on fire, but for whatever reason, this bush is on fire, and I think it was to get Moses’s attention. Notice what the storyteller says:

Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

Exodus 3:3, NIV

So, Moses is confused and intrigued and curious, and he goes, and he investigates the burning bush, and God calls to him, “Moses! Moses!” Moses responds, and then God tells him, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Something about Moses’s sandals was not acceptable, and this is a common theme in the Old Testament when people come across the presence of God. There are places where priests have to remove their shoes. There are places where people in certain contexts have to remove their shoes, because it’s a holy place or the ground is holy or there’s a sacredness about the context, and there’s something about how they viewed shoes in these stories — there’s something about the symbolism of shoes in this story that symbolizes the removal of something impure, something that wasn’t compatible with what God was doing. But, it seems to me that the removal of the shoes is secondary to the fact that Moses is standing in the presence of the Lord.

The ground is not holy because it is inherently holy. The ground is holy there, because he is standing in the presence of God around the burning bush. It was the presence of the Lord, or the Angel of the Lord, or whatever spirit of the Lord that made the place holy, as opposed to that other place Moses was standing before he came and investigated the burning bush. God didn’t say never wear shoes again because everywhere is holy. He said take off your shoes because ground on which you are standing is holy.

And there wasn’t something special about Moses’s shoes that was going to desecrate the holiness of God, and that’s what I mean when I say that disgust psychology is opposite in this story than it is when we think of other things. The “impurity” of Moses’s shoes doesn’t defile the presence of God. Otherwise, God would have said, “Take off your shoes and destroy them, because they are impure and cannot be in my pure presence.” He didn’t say that. He simply said, “Take off your shoes, because the ground on which you are standing is holy.”

Often times, I think we emphasize the shoes as though there’s an impurity that needs to be removed from the presence of the Lord, but instead, there seems to be some kind of carnal, visceral attachment that God is looking for. “Have some reverence for my presence, yes, but remove your shoes and come be with me.”

The same thing happens in Joshua, chapter 5, where Joshua is confronted by the commander of the armies of the Lord. In Joshua, chapter 5 and verse 13, it says,

Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

Joshua 5:13-15, NIV

In the same way that Moses was on holy ground in the presence of the burning bush, Joshua is on holy ground in the presence of the commander of the armies of the Lord. It doesn’t say who this. Maybe the argument can be made that it was the Angel of the Lord. Maybe the argument can be made that the Angel of the Lord is God the Son, pre-Jesus incarnate, but none of that is really important, I think. The writer doesn’t specify. He simply says that the commander of the armies of the Lord, his presence, made the place holy, and I submit to you that his presence made the place holy because his presence came with the presence of God.

The armies of the Lord go in the power of God, and therefore, God’s Spirit and God’s presence is with them, and because God is present, the ground on which they stand is holy ground, and it doesn’t matter what ground they’re standing on, because the presence of the Lord purifies the place where it resides.

And we see that mentality all throughout the building of the temple, the construction of the tabernacle, the priestly duties associated with those things — even the moving of the tabernacle from one place to another was a holy act, and only specific people were allowed to do it, the people who God called to be those bearers of the tabernacle.

I’m saying tabernacle; I mean ark of the covenant — the physical box that they had to carry with them that represented the presence of God.

Everywhere that the presence of God is becomes holy ground, and in the Old Testament, the Israelites were wrestling with this, because they were called to be people of God, but they were consistently feeling as though they were not in the presence of God. And God continues to be more and more present with them. First, he sends prophets. Then, he sends signs, like clouds and pillars of fire. Then, he sends them physical constructions and manifestations of things that they can actually see: the tabernacle and the different places in the tabernacle and the emblems that they would place in the most holy place — the staff of Aaron, in the sprinkling of the blood, in the sacrificing of the animals, in the ark of the covenant, in the robes of the priests… God was continually being more and more physically present with them, and then finally when we get to the New Testament in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God says, “I’m just going to come down and be with you,” because the Israelites don’t seem to get it.

They don’t seem to understand the way that the Lord’s presence purifies them and makes the ground holy beneath them. Instead, they’re constantly chasing after other things, and in the New Testament, Jesus comes down and says, “I am Immanuel. I am God with you,” and a lot of the confrontation that he has with the priests and the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who oppose him is the idea of impurity. And when we get into the gospels, we have all these stories.

Why do your disciples eat with unwashed hands? In other words, why are they unclean and making them impure as they eat the food? Why do your disciples walk through the grain fields and just shuck the grain and eat it, which they can’t do on the Sabbath?

And Jesus is constantly pushing back with challenges about purity to the point where he finally says don’t you know that it’s not what goes into your body that makes you impure? It’s what comes out of your body that makes you impure, because what comes out of your body is born of what’s inside, what’s in your heart. What’s in your heart overpours into what you do and into what you say. The impurity is not something that you’re contaminated by but something that you nurture in yourself that then outpours from you, and when we come to the table of the Lord and we take these emblems that represent Jesus’s sacrifice — his broken body and his [poured out] blood — we’re reminded that God came to purify what was impure, not by merely coming and telling you that your sins are forgiven but by actually inviting you in to the table of the Lord.

God does not wait for you to become pure, because God is not contaminated by impurity, and this is the place where so many Christians have gone wrong. Too often, we nurture a purity culture that says unless you remove from yourself all impurity, you will become impure. It’s a definitive statement. We say that sin makes you impure. We say that your bad choices make you impure, and we put more power and emphasis on that than we do on God’s ability to be pure.

We put more power and emphasis on a person’s impurity and a person’s unrighteousness and a person’s unworthiness than we do on the fact that God’s presence all throughout scripture, including the presence of Jesus, makes things pure, makes things holy, consecrates things unto himself.

So when we get to the book of Acts — when we get to the book of Acts, we miss the power of [what Peter says]. In Acts chapter 2…the day of Pentecost, the disciples are baptized in fire and receive the Holy Spirit, and Peter stands up and addresses the crowd, and in verse 22, he says,

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:

“‘I saw the Lord always before me.

    Because he is at my right hand,

    I will not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;

    my body also will rest in hope,

because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,

    you will not let your holy one see decay.

You have made known to me the paths of life;

    you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:

    “Sit at my right hand

until I make your enemies

    a footstool for your feet.”’

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

Acts 2:22-36, NIV

They asked what should we do, and:

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

…“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” [And] those who accepted his message were baptized…

Acts 2:38-39, NIV

Jesus dies, God raises him from the dead, and the New Testament assertion is that God now sits with Jesus at his right hand in the throne room of God. The New Testament assertion is that Jesus raised from the dead and didn’t just live and die as a normal man but ascended into heaven. As Hebrews says, we have a high priest who never dies — a high priest in the order of Melchizedek who persists forever. We have a hope that is our anchor on the other side of the veil. It connects God with us.

And more than that, the New Testament asserts that God loves all of creation and that this very thing happened for the redemption of all creation, and Paul says that creation groans for its reconciliation. It awaits our participation so that all of creation can be reconciled to God, not just us, and the Holy Spirit is poured out on everybody who is called, and more than that, Joel says the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh, on everything.

And we teach this theology of presence, that God is present in all of creation — that God is present with you, that God is present with us, that God is present with all of the living things, the plants and the animals. We preach this theology that God is present with all of nature and that all things were made through him and that all things hold together in him, and especially if you go as far as to have a theology that says that God is in control of all things… You have to understand, then, that the God of creation is present in all of creation, and as we just talked about, the presence of God, then, in all of creation — before Jesus and during Jesus and through Jesus and after Jesus — the raising of the dead and the ascending into heaven, the sitting at the right hand of God, the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh — all of these things indicate to us that God is present, now, everywhere.

We have to get away from the mindset that holy ground is a sacred place that we go. We have to get away from the mindset that holy ground is this exclusionary thing that we “do” — that the holy ground only exists at the table of the Lord, some physical location; that holy ground only exists inside of a church building; that holy ground only exists when clergy is present or when something has been blessed or sanctified. We need to get away from this mentality, because it undercuts what Peter says, here, in Acts 2.

It undercuts that fact that Jesus rose from the dead, ascends into heaven, and poured the Holy Spirit out into the world. It undercuts everything else that we say about God’s love and God’s presence with people. The idea that holy ground only exists when God is present but that not all things can be holy or that not all places can be holy — the idea that impurity contaminates purity — undercuts everything that we teach about who Jesus was and what God is doing in creation.

If God is with you then where you are is holy ground, because the presence of God makes holy ground, and I hope you understand by now that I’m not talking about physical ground. I’m not talking about you physically standing here, and this ground is holy, and I’m certainly not talking about you being like Jesus and purifying people of their sins. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the fact that if you think some impurity is going to come into your life and be so contaminating that it will override the power and the presence and the purity of God, then you have given too much power to impurity and not enough power to Jesus.

Where the presence and the Spirit of God go, that is holy ground, and if you believe that the presence and the Spirit of God is with you, then where you are is holy ground. And if you believe that God purifies impurities, then there is nothing that’s going to come into your life and compromise that holy ground, so purity culture that says you have to distance yourself from people who are impure — from people who are “sinful” and “unrighteous” — is counter to what we find in Jesus Christ.

Why do you think that Jesus can take his disciples into all of those places that are conventionally impure? Why do you think that Jesus can take his disciples to go and be with people who are leprous, be with people who are outcast, who are poor, who are sinners, who are adulterers, fornicators and drunkards, tax collectors and the shunned and marginalized of society? Why do you think Jesus can do that?

He can do that because the Spirit of God is not contaminated by our perception of impurity in the world. God is present in all of creation. I understand that there are some deep rooted theologies that people struggle with. I understand that there’s the way that people understand the fall of man in Genesis and being kicked out of the garden. I understand that there are interpretations of scripture that make this challenging.

My assertion to you is this: God is present with you, and where God is is holy ground. And if you desire after God, then understand this: God is all you need in your life to be pure and holy. It’s not about what you do. It’s about what God is doing for you, so break away.

Break way from the pressure and the expectation of purity culture. Pursue a God who, like he calls to Moses, is calling to you. Pursue a God who, like with Joshua, comes to you. Pursue the God who we see in Jesus, who comes into the world that rejects him and dies for it anyway. That kind of God doesn’t need your purity. That God wants you to acknowledge God’s presence, and it is in the presence of God that we can walk with God, and Jesus’s sacrifice makes us pure.

If you’re in that head space — if you’re in that place in your journey — where this is resonating with you, then I understand that you might be coming up on some difficult questions. I encourage you to come and ask us those questions. I encourage you to reach out to us and let us journey with you through that. We don’t have expectations about what you will believe. What we want is to be able to journey with you into the love of God and through the struggle of wrestling with understanding a God who is immeasurable, and I want you to know that this is a safe space to do that. Regardless of what you decide, regardless of what conclusions you come to, this is a safe space to explore the presence of God in your life and then all of creation.

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