“Holier than Thou”
“Holier than Thou”
Tonight we continue our midweek Advent series, “Holy, holy, holy”. Last week we considered God's holiness and the “holy smokes” which surround it, and found sin and grace in the smokes mentioned in Scripture. This week, we ponder John the Baptist and the Pharisees, and turn to another everyday phrase with biblical application.
It's one of the ugliest insults someone call make today – that someone is “holier than thou”. And yet it's also a charge leveled at many of us Christians. Those of us who believe in God's word, who practice our faith, who go to church and try to live lives pleasing to him – aren't always regarded so highly by those who do not. And whether it's something you say that tweaks them or just your example of faith, chances are many of you have been called “holier than thou”, whether you even know it or not.
Sometimes, it's because you give a witness or testimony to the truth of God's word. Sometimes you just tell someone about Jesus. Sometimes you call a sin a sin, even in a very gentle way, not because you are proud and arrogant, but because that's what the Bible says. God forbids homosexual activity. He hates divorce. He does not condone abortion. But now you are a self-righteous so-and-so, a bible thumper, a goody-goody ultra-conservative right-wing-nut-job for simply pointing to the clear word of God.
And then you think to yourself: It's unfair of them, isn't it? Those heathens and unbelievers. Those false teachers and poor lost sheep following them. If only they believed the right doctrine, as we do. If only that had faith as we do. If only they weren't so proud and arrogant – and if they were a little more humble, like me. Yes, I am the perfect believer, the true child of God. Ok, I'll admit it, I'm not exactly perfect. Oh, I'm not holier-than-thou, but I sure do try harder than those guys. God must like me more, because of it. Of course, because I'm... well....
Pride. What an insidious sin. For all the sins of the unbelievers and wrong-believers, we church-going Lutheran types are oh-so susceptible to pride, arrogance, and vanity. Pride was the sin of the Pharisees, well a big one anyway. They thought they had it all together. They thought they were right with God. After all, they were good Jews, with Abraham as their father! But John called them out. He said they were children of snakes.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath! Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!” Wow.
If someone talked to you that way... well, the nerve! If someone talked to me that way, I'd be ready for a fight. Our natural inclination to that sort of verbal attack is to put up our mental dukes and prepare to swing back.
“Who are you to tell me!?” “Oh, you're so much better!” “You don't know me. Walk a mile in my shoes.” Or you simply dismiss the messenger as holier-than-thou so you don't have to hear the message any more.
But that message is the law of God, and it won't go away. The pointing finger of John the baptist keeps poking at us, and the flimsy shield of our pride cannot long protect us from the laser-beam of God's accusation. You are a sinner. You need to repent. Turn from those sins. Don't just go through the motions. Don't make excuses. Don't kill the messenger. Don't try to put the focus on the other guy's sins. Repent. Turn from your wicked ways and ask God's forgiveness for the wrongs you have done.
For the truth is, as much as we get unjustly called “holier than thou”... sometimes, it is true. Sometimes we do feel self-righteous when we tell someone off. When we get into an argument about religion at the holiday family gathering, and forget that we too are poor sinners that need God's correction. When we make a snide comment about what the world is coming to nowadays, and forget we are a part of that sinful world. When we get that sense of satisfaction and glee in showing how this sinner or that sinner is so sinful, because it takes the spotlight off of this sinner (me).
I once saw a T-shirt, that I almost bought, “Proud to be Lutheran (but not too proud)”. It's true that we believe our Missouri-Synod Lutheran understanding of the Bible is the best, the truest, the most faithful. We have the right understanding of the sacraments, of being saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. We guard against decision theology and works-righteousness. We are careful not to be influenced by those, even other Christians, who teach falsely. But how often do the blessings of good doctrine become, for us, another temptation to pride and arrogance? Like any other good gift and blessing of God, we can find a way to make it sinful.
For the sin of pride, for being holier than thou, and for all our other sins, we repent, O Lord. Help us to truly listen to your accusing law, and not turn it away, but instead to confess before you all our wrongdoing, all our failures and faults. May we bring them to the foot of the cross, before the one who takes them away, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Yes, Jesus Christ, the one who truly is holier-than-thou, but in a good way. Never arrogant but always humble. He if anyone had a right to assert his holiness. For he was like us in every way, yet without sin, says the book of Hebrews. He is the Holy One of Israel, who was long expected by God's people of old. Foretold by the prophets, those ancient holy men. And John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, the last of the prophets, would testify the same. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals”. He is that much more holy.
And we might expect that someone so holy came to give us a perfect law that we could follow. We might expect that he would come to show us the truth path, the right way to please God. That by following his example we could qualify for heaven. But he doesn't. Jesus wasn't about teaching us how to be holy or showing us how to make ourselves holy. Instead, he makes us holy.
He lives a holy life of perfection, and gives us the credit. We are clothed in him, and so also, in his holiness. In Baptism, we receive his holy name, indeed, the name of the Triune God, and all the benefits that go with it. We are made holy ones, saints of God.
He dies a holy death, the once and for all sacrifice of the Lamb of God, as John called him, to take away the sin of the world. It is that sin that made us unholy, and holy precious blood shed by him takes it away, making us holy again.
Holiness, not my holiness but the holiness of Christ, becomes a way of life then for the Christian. And so we strive to walk the fine line.
Maintaining the truth, while remaining humble, is no easy task. Staying faithful to God without being prideful about it – easier said than done. Living a holy life, worthy of our calling, is always a goal. But saints who are also sinners will come up short. And so we live lives of continual repentance.
Even our repentance can never be perfect, but God's grace in Christ is. We can't do it without him, in fact, we can't do it at all. But he does it all for us. His Spirit assists and empowers us, calls us to repentance, and points us to the forgiveness Jesus brings. He makes us holy, and we live in his grace.
So in humble faith, turn away from sin, and from arrogant pride, and turn toward him. And he will guard your hearts and minds with a peace that passes understanding, in Jesus Christ, who is holier-than-thou, for your blessing.