Perfection: On Fire

7th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A) – February 23, 2020

St. Margaret Mary – Wichita, KS

Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

THE FEAR OF THE HOLY LORD

As you may know, all priests make a promise to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, five times a day, every day. And one part of that prayer is called the Office of Readings, which includes Psalms, a readings from Scripture, and a reading from a Church Father, or the saints. All this week the scripture reading has been from the book of Proverbs. And there in the ninth chapter, I came across that very familiar line—but for some reason it struck me in a whole new way. I had heard it my whole life, and could quote it even before I knew where it came from. Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” And I don’t know why, but for some reason it just kinda hit me: “the fear of the Lord.” I remember even writing a paper on the “fear of the Lord” back in seminary, focusing on Isaiah 11, when Isaiah speaks about how the Spirit will rest on the shoot that will sprout from the stump of Jesse, and how this person’s “delight” will be the fear of the Lord (c.f., Isaiah 11:2-3). But specifically, I remember trying to explain why fear doesn’t really mean fear, and that we shouldn’t fear God but just really respect him and reverence him. But it hit me: maybe fear means fear.

That first line from our first reading, when Moses speaks the word of the Lord to the people, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2)—it makes me go right to the book of Isaiah when Isaiah has a vision of the Lord, seated on the throne. And all of the angels are covering themselves and crying out, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Holy, that word “holy,” doesn’t mean “pure and undefiled, no sin, perfect.” No, “holy” means completely “other,” set apart—holy. And the angels of God are just shouting, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” They are covering themselves, covering their faces. They can’t even look! These angels, these perfect beings, no sin—these angels are covering themselves.

And what is Isaiah’s reaction? Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost; I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” When Isaiah sees this vision of the LORD, his immediate reaction is: “I am going to die. I am going to be destroyed.” It’s like when you’re a little kid and you get caught, and your stomach just sink and you want to throw-up—except instead of throwing up, you just think you’re going to die.

We have kind of lost sight of this in how we think about God. We think about him as a loving Father, or like our Psalm today said, we jump to, “The Lord is kind and merciful.” And he is those things! But the reason we rejoice that God is merciful, the reason we say that the Gospel is “good news,” is because we first fear him. Again, what is Isaiah’s reaction when he sees God? Isaiah, a prophet of God, God’s chosen one. Isaiah’s reaction is: “I am going to die. He is going to kill me.” Fear.

And I know what some of you are thinking: “Come on, Fr. Mike, God love us. God is love.” Yes. But remember, this is the same God who wiped-out the whole population of the earth except for Noah. This is the same God who killed the firstborn of every living creature from the first born of Pharaoh all the way down to the firstborn of the prisoner. This is the same God—there is that story in 2 Samuel, when David and his men are moving the Ark on this cart pulled by oxen; and the oxen stumble and the Ark is going to fall off, so the man Uzzah stabilizes the Ark. Nice job, Uzzah! Right? Wrong. “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.” He was just trying to stabilize the Ark from falling! But no, because of his irreverence in even touching the Ark, he was struck down. In the New Testament, Ananias and Saphira lied to Peter and to God about the money they gave—and they fell down dead.

Fear. Fear means fear. Hebrews 12: St. Pauls says, “you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest” (Heb 12:18). God is not something you just grab and touch. When have you heard God described as a blazing fire, darkness, gloom, a tempest? We don’t think or talk about God like that! We want to believe in a soft, cuddly God that just gently holds us. And so we start to think, “Man, when I get to heaven, I have a few questions for God!” Or we think, “God never listens to me, he never gives me what I want.” Or we think, “God can’t tell me what to do. I have dreams, I have desires, I have plans for my own life.” And it’s like…I think he can. I mean, in Job, God answered from a whirlwind! Imagine yourself standing in an open field with a tornado headed right at you—there’s not a lot you can say. You can’t look at that and say, “I have dreams.”

Why is any of this “Good News”? Because if this “God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). Even though we should expect destruction and death from this God—as our Psalm says, “He redeems your life from destruction.…Not according to our sins does he deal with us, nor does he requite us according to our crimes” (Ps 103:4 & 103:10).

THE COMMANDMENTS & PERFECTION

God is God. He has the right to tell us what to do. And when God becomes man, when Jesus comes, the first message he preaches is what we have heard in our Gospel these past couple of weeks from the Sermon on the Mount: “I have not come to abolish the law…but to fulfill” (Mt. 5:17). “You shall not kill? Well, I say, do not even be angry. Do not commit adultery? I say do not even look at a woman with lust. Eye for an eye? I say turn the other cheek. Love your neighbor and hate your enemy? I say love your enemies.” Why? Why does Jesus do this? Does God just want to control us even more? Does this God we fear just want us to roll over in submission? Cower in fear? Become enslaved?

“Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). What is Jesus driving at? Again, go back to the first reading: “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2)—and remember Isaiah’s vision of God in the Temple, the angels crying out, “Holy, holy, holy!” Go to our second reading: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 3:16). Maybe God has a bigger plan for us than following commands.

THE RICH YOUNG MAN & PERFECTION

There is only one other place in all of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus uses the word “perfect.”

One came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Look at that! Just like we have been reading the past several weeks! And that’s us. We come here each and every Sunday, asking the Lord, “What must I do to have eternal life?” We come here seeking to enter eternal life. And Jesus tells us to keep the commandments. Jesus even quotes our first reading from today, right from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But what happens?

The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?”

This young man already does that! How many of us can say that? We all need to start with the commandments—he didn’t come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. We have to keep the commandments. But the secret? Keeping the commandments isn’t going to fulfill us! The secret? We were not made to just keep commandments! That doesn’t give us life.

And so Jesus has this man right where he wants him.

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt. 19:16-21)

Perfection, to be perfect. It doesn’t come from following all the best rules. Perfection isn’t even talking about moral perfection, or intellectual perfection. It’s not about who acts the best or who knows the most or who defends the right set of values. “Perfect” is the fulfillment of all a person’s potential. Perfect is actually being everything God has created you to be. God created us for himself! For union with him! “God became man so that man might become God,” all of the Church Father’s say. Our second reading, again, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

God invites us—in freedom, just like the rich young man—God invites us to be united to his all-consuming fire. This God—this blazing fire, darkness, gloom, a tempest—this God is for us! This God does not take pleasure in the death of the sinner, but desires him to turn from his sin and live (c.f., Ezekiel 18:23)! This God that we fear, that we expect to kills us, that is so other and holy that we can only fall down in worship—this God humbled himself, became man, took the form of a slave, accepted death himself. This God takes away the sin of the world! This God that should consume us…we consume. He offers himself in a way no one could fear: in the appearance of bread and wine.

Why? Because God wants us to be perfect. Not just without sin, not just following rules. No, God wants us to live his very life. God wants us to take part in this life that angels look at and cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” We were made not to be good little rule-followers. We were made to share the life of God. And in this Eucharist, we are blessed to be called to this supper—the supper of the blazing fire, of a tempest: the supper of the Lamb.

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