by Tim Sprankle
My wife and I secured a spot on the eastern rim of the Grand Canyon. We had spent the day hiking with two friends; our legs were weary from switchbacks and steep inclines. Dusk arrived and tourists departed. Only a small, muttering crowd shared our vista as the sun—a magnificent amber orb—made its final bow.
For a minute time stopped. Our hearts paused. Our breath abated. Our bodies froze. The sun stood still and our eyes opened wide. This was a holy moment. Then the sun dipped beneath the horizon and the patch of onlookers began to stir.
Before the moment slipped too quickly into memory, I stood and clapped. I could not let this display of God’s glory and handiwork go unrecognized. My wife and friends followed. Soon every bystander and tourist joined in our applause. We gave God a standing ovation at the Grand Canyon. A holy moment, indeed.
Biblical narratives abound with holy moments. Moses encounters God in the burning bush. Israel stands at the base of Sinai, a safe distance from God’s thundering presence. Joshua meets the Angel of the Lord at the Jordan river. Isaiah witnesses God’s glory flowing from the temple. Saul hears the voice of Jesus calling him from persecution to mission. John envisions the risen and resplendent Jesus wielding sword and wreathed in flames.
A pattern emerges in these stories. The Holy God reveals Himself. The sinful human bows. The Holy God addresses his audience, affirming and commissioning. They accept and the mysterium tremendum—Rudolph Otto’s famous phrase for holy terror—pushes these people to new heights.
My spiritual experience is short on burning bushes and apocalyptic visions. I have never heard God shout my name from heaven or roll back the curtains of heaven for my wondering mind. Nor have I been privy to angel choirs or chariots of fire. Such encounters may still take place, but my understanding of the holiness of God follows a different script. It comes from the creation account.
After six days of orderly and expansive, blessed and beautiful, potent and good work, God dedicates day seven to rest. The fruit of his labor from the first six days—light and stars, oceans and land, plants and animals, man and woman—he deems good. Only the seventh day merits the special qualifier: holy.
“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating he had done” (Genesis 2:2-3, NIV).
On the seventh day work ceased and time stood still. Later in Israel’s history, God institutionalized a seventh day, holy rest for his people. Sabbath gave recognition to God’s good creation (Exodus 20:8-11) and great redemption (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The day provided relief from labor for families, slaves, and animals to remember God. “Mark this day. Observe this day. Keep it holy,” God instructed.
Beside Sabbath stood other Hebrew holy days and weeks and years. God wanted his people to set aside times for feasting, forgiving debts, recalling God’s saving acts and seeking his favor (see Leviticus 23-25 and Deuteronomy 15-16). Holy moments pervaded the Hebrew calendar.
Sadly, the commentary of Israel’s prophets (e.g., Isaiah 1:13-14; Amos 5:21-24) and Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees (e.g., Mark 2:23-3:6) indicate a misuse of Sabbath. These holy days were either ignored or commodified. People demonstrated a greater desire for financial gain (Amos 8:4-6) and religious authority (Matthew 12:1-14), than basking in God’s holiness. Religion and the marketplace hollowed out God’s holy Sabbath.
The early church did not eliminate Sabbath, but repurposed it. At first they met daily to break bread, fellowship, pray, and share in the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42-47). Later they gathered on the first day of the week (1 Corinthians 16:2), likely to commemorate the new creation, of which Jesus was the first fruits (15:20-23). But on more than one occasion, Paul warned against elevating one day above another on the holiness chart (Romans 14:5; Colossians 2:16); they could declare all days holy. The author of Hebrew affirms this notion, concluding Sabbath rest and heavenly access are ever-present realities (Hebrews 4:1-16).
Holy encounters loom on the horizon. Unfortunately, God’s holiness escapes our notice because we, like Israel, have accepted the cheap substitute of the Sunday morning worship rally for slow and attentive, quiet and reflective Sabbath rest. We put in our time without really stopping. And when religious goods and services come as just one more activity or amusement, we miss the holiness of God. A God fashioned to amuse us cannot amaze us.
Fortunately, the offer of Sabbath rest remains. We are never more than a prayer away from the throne of heaven. We can, even today, enter God’s holy rest (Hebrews 4:11). The word of God speaks today (4:12), shouting his holiness from the pages of Scripture, mouths of babes, winds of heaven, and whispers of our conscience. We can apprehend his holiness if we learn to stop and pay attention.
We cultivate a sense of God’s holiness when we watch more sunsets, take more walks, climb more hills, feed more birds. We make room for more holy moments when we turn down the news, silence our cell phones, break from our screens, and set aside time for personal worship and corporate feasting. God reveals himself both in quiet times and meaningful conversations.
We must learn to pace ourselves, so we can delight in God’s creative genius. He has hidden his holiness in the royal glint of the human eye (Psalm 8), the unique design of a single snowflake (Job 38), the emotional power of memorable stories (Luke 15), and the stirring force of a shared song (Exodus 15). We bypass signs of his holiness when we live in a hurry.
Finally, we should apply this attentive and lingering mindset to our time in the Scriptures. His holiness emanates from his word. Reading slowly, reflectively, and inquisitively gets beyond the duty of our discipline to the praise of his holiness. We may never meet God at a burning bush or river bank, but the biblical text trains our imagination to see him in the sunset. And when we do, it is appropriate to clap. Or sing.
“Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come”
(Revelation 4:8, NIV)
Tim Sprankle is pastor of the Grace Brethren Church, Leesburg, Ind.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 GraceConnect magazine, the quarterly publication for leaders and members of Grace Brethren churches in North America. View the complete magazine online here or at issuu. To receive a free subscription, mailed directly to your home, click here.