The expression “a brush with greatness” describes an encounter with something or someone bigger than you. This could be a chance meeting with someone you’ve admired or a moment in nature that causes you to see life differently. In significant ways those moments can change us, even if only temporarily, because we gain a sense of connection with an idea or a context that is larger than us, or at least one that we perceive to be larger than us. Regardless of the actual validity of the “greatness” in question (I would place much higher value on seeing the sunset over the ocean from the Galapagos Islands than bumping into Snoop Dog in an airport – but each to his or her own) the essence of the encounter is an important principle that I believe has a Biblical foundation.
In the second half of the book of Exodus there is a laborious description of the pieces, preparations and purposes of the Tabernacle. Details abound and it can become a difficult reading experience if you aren’t fond of construction, interior design, Jewish culture or repetition. But, despite its density, there are some interesting things that emerge from a reading of these chapters. For instance, in chapter 30 of Exodus this verse caught my attention this morning:
You shall consecrate them [the furniture in the Tabernacle] that they may be most holy. Whatever touches them will become holy. (ESV)
What God tells Moses about things consecrated to God is quite interesting, and remarkably practical for us right now. Holiness, it seems, can be acquired in one of two ways: you can either dedicate something to God for His pleasure and use, or you can brush up against something that has been dedicated to Him. Both of these experiences, Exodus suggests, produce holiness. Admittedly,the entire idea of holiness has been something of a moving target for the Western church, though it shouldn’t be. It has, in many minds, represented the abstention of certain activities or practices, and while that may indeed be the result of holiness, that is not what it actually is. In fact, to attempt to define holiness by creating a list of things to avoid is to adopt a shrunken, shriveled view of this beautiful and robust idea; sort of like trying to describe Beethoven’s 9th symphony by only telling people how it isn’t like a Hank Williams Jr. song.
Holiness simply means “other” or “otherness”. It is an expression of uniqueness and singularity. Holiness is not the absence of something or some activity, it is the presence of something or some activity. We refer to God as “holy” not because He abstains from getting drunk or doesn’t chew tobacco, but because He loves the unlovable and heals the broken. God doesn’t avoid ugly places or sinful people, He moves into the midst of them; and it is at that point that something amazing takes place – something that the verse from Exodus seems to point to.
When Jesus touched lepers He entered an interaction that would normally render the healthy person unclean, impure, or infected and He turned the entire balance around and made the unclean thing clean, the untouchable thing touchable, and the infected thing became whole. In the same way that Moses seems to be writing of the residual effect of brushing up against the furniture of the Tabernacle, when God touches things He isn’t soiled, He makes the soiled thing clean. This is the beauty of holiness, it is active, not passive; it reaches and transforms, it does not get overwhelmed or stifled. When we come into contact with God or “holy things” dedicated to Him, we are changed for the better, God’s reputation is not sullied. And then, quite consequently, when we who have been rendered holy by our contact with the otherness and singular beauty of God come into contact with this world there should be an explosion of wonder as we brush up against dark places. Injustice and prejudice and hate and lack and hopelessness ought never be the same once we’ve brushed up against them. We who have been transformed by the presence of God have no fear of walking into a desolate place and finding ourselves lost, but instead we believe that lost places become found as we resonate the holiness of God into them. Like tuning forks in abandoned canyons we are struck by the majesty and wonder of the Creator only to explode in waves of light and love and sound and fury in those weary hearts that we brush up against.