The daily need to answer that question has emerged as one of the major themes as we at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, spend a year reading the Bible together.*
In Exodus, God commanded His people to have no other gods but Him. Compassion, not egotism, is behind this command. Only God can give life, after all. To follow any other god, literally spells everlasting death. To spare ancient Israel, God's people, from such a fate, God called them to be "holy," a word that means set apart for God.
The ongoing challenge (and demand) God issued to His people is voiced by Joshua, the leader of the Israelites who succeeded Moses, when Joshua says:
Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.
Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
But the Old Testament honestly reports that the lure of surrounding cultures repeatedly proved overpowering for Israel.
God called Israel into being to bring the possibility of new life from Him to all the world. Eventually, Christians believe, Israel gave birth to the Savior Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.
In Jesus, God issues the same command to all the world that He once issued to Israel. Before His death and resurrection, Jesus said:
32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven." (Matthew 10:32-33)Again, God commands trust and obedience out of compassion, not egotism. Life only comes through the God made clear to the world in Jesus of Nazareth.
But, as was true of the ancient Israelites, the lure of culture can sometimes prove overpowering. It's easier to follow the little gods you can see than it is to follow the God you can't see at the moment.
Besides, you're likely to find it easier going to go along with the culture than you will if you march to the rhythm of a different drum, especially if it's being played by God.
The contemporary American church isn't immune to going along to get along with the culture.
The conservative version of Christianity upheld by the "Christian Right" is a hyper American nationalism that uses the Bible to justify the rampant materialism and arrogance that non-Christians like Donald Trump readily endorse.
The liberal version of Christianity in vogue in "liberal Protestantism" attempts to put God's stamp of approval on cheap grace (that is, God's forgiveness without our repentance and salvation without trusting surrender to Jesus Christ) and, notably, the legitimization of sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a woman and a man.**
Whether done out of a well-meaning, but unintended, disregard for God's revealed will in Scripture or from an attempt to make their version of Christianity acceptable to a mass audience, both of these caricatures of Christianity are faithless.
They each are guilty of choosing favored cultural mores, rather than choosing to follow the God Who demands our acquiescence to His sometimes inconvenient truth. *
To be a "holy people," a people devoted to God, doesn't imply moral perfection. Christians are imperfect. We sin every day. As I've said elsewhere, we are recovering hypocrites who bring our lives before God each day in repentance, so that God not only can forgive us, but also perform reconstructive surgery on our souls.
To be a holy people, then, is to keep turning to God. It's to acknowledge the deep wisdom underlying Proverbs 3:5: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
*We started on March 9. We read about three chapters a day. Today's reading is 1 Samuel 28-31.
**This is the route chosen by my own denominational body. I pray regularly that it will reverse course.