I grew up in the suburbs of Richmond, Va. One fond memory is of a well-known Richmond institution—a family-owned chain of grocery stores called Ukrops. First opened in 1937, the stores were a regional phenomenon, known for quality products and attentive service. (You get a glimpse of their approach when you understand that their bag boys were known as “courtesy clerks” and they were required to take your groceries out to your car, no matter what the weather was like.) Their in-store delis were incredible. They became hot meeting places for people up and down the social scale. Indeed, their sandwiches were so good that many corporate executives would plan lunch meetings at the local Ukrops deli—power lunches in a grocery store! Can you imagine?
However, in my mind there was one overarching feature that stood out about the Ukrops stores: They exemplified Christian virtue. The Ukrops family were Christian people. And their Christian morals and principles carried over into how they ran their stores. The stores were clean, friendly and pleasant to be in. They did not sell alcoholic beverages. It was an annual tradition for the local newspapers to print a story about the grocery chain when the Sports Illustrated swimsuit was released—because Ukrops would not sell that particular issue. There were signs posted in their stores encouraging people to attend church. And get this, none of their stores were open on Sunday.
Yep. You did understand me correctly. Their stores were closed on Sundays. Now, I am not talking about a chain of stores operating in the 1930’s. I am talking about a grocery chain that was in business until just a couple of years ago. (Ukrops was bought out by a national grocery chain in 2009.) Now you might expect that this caused them quite a bit of financial hardship. How can you close one day a week and compete with Safeway, Giant Eagle, Martins, and other national chains? But actually for years Ukrops had the highest sales figures of any grocery chain in the Richmond area. This stat stood the test of time (and Sabbath closings) for quite a while.
There is a basic (and biblical) principle at work here. You honor God and He will honor you. Simple. Fact. Period.
You see, the Ukrops family took keeping the Sabbath day holy not merely as a suggestion, nor even as an Old Testament legalistic requirement. They considered it a sacred duty that honored God and observed His way of doing things. To them, Sunday was sacred. My, what a concept.
It is this focus on something actually being honored as holy—sacred, set apart—that fascinates me. Holiness is like a foreign language to many people—too many, in fact. They just don’t seem to understand it. I see many Christians whose behavior, speech and values are not very different from those who do not know Christ. Indeed, there are far, far too many believers who exhibit lifestyles that are virtually indistinguishable from the way people in the world live. I fear we have truly lost something wonderful. We have lost a desire for holiness, and we have even lost a sense of the holy.
It is this sense of the holy that I think the church desperately needs to regain. But instead, we want to pretend that all things are holy (when they definitely are not!). It’s sorta like when people want to treat all children exactly the same. Give awards to all participants in a contest. Reward alike any and all behaviors. Make no distinctions based on performance, achievement or merit. For after all, it is said, everyone is special. But this is simply not true. For someone to be “special” it requires that there to be something distinctive, noteworthy, or different about that person. If everyone is special, then no one is special. And it is also true for holiness. If everything is “holy” then nothing is really holy.
Let’s refresh our minds about what holiness means. To be holy means to be set apart, distinct, other than, separate, indeed—special. It is not the usual, the ordinary. It is different. It is not your kitchenware—rather it is the holy tongs and utensils used to handle the fire of the altar, or the sacrifice on the altar. It is not your dining room table, it the Table of the Presence, where the Bread of God is reserved for sacred use. It is not a Yankee candle in a jar, it is the Golden Altar where the smoke of the consecrated incense billows upward as a memorial before God. It is something spiritually special—something dedicated, devoted to God.
Our lives are to be like this. Holy. Separate. Different. Other than the world. We are called a “peculiar people” not because we are odd or strange, but rather because we are a different people. We are not of this world. We belong to another world, and another Being. We are His, and we are to demonstrate what it really means to be His by how we live. We are to be holy. (See 1 Peter 1:16.)
Have you ever had a chance to read the diaries and journals of the great saints of times past? If not, let me encourage you to do so. There are great lessons and wise instruction for us in the pages of these heart-stirring works. I vividly remember reading the diary of David Brainerd many years ago. Brainerd was the son-in-law of noted pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards. Brainerd was also a missionary to the American Indians. He spent his life for God, very literally. He basically used himself up for the sake of the Gospel. Here was a man of incredible devotion to God and inspiring dedication to the Lord’s work. Yet, when you read his diary, you see how he wrestled with anguish over his own failings. He saw the lack in his own heart, and he longed for a life and a soul completely pure and holy before God. Listen to one excerpt from his diary…
“When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable…. Oh, for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! Oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God…. Oh, that I may feel this continual hunger, and not be retarded, but rather animated by every ‘cluster from Cannan,’ To reach forward in the narrow way, for the full enjoyment and possession of the heavenly inheritance.”
I read such words, and I am struck to the core of my being. Do I have an insatiable, “continual hunger” for God? Is my thirst for holiness unquenchable? Do I even desire the “pleasing pain” of longing for true purity of soul? The truth is, I settle so often for so much less than this. My longings are too often more carnal than spiritual. My desires are for more of this world rather than having insatiable cravings for the One who made the world. My problem is not that I don’t desire holiness, but I desire it too feebly.
Yet, there is some hope here also. Brainerd gives us a prescription we would be wise to follow. God, in His grace, blesses our lives with times of pleasure in His presence. When these experiences come, let’s use them. Let the enjoyment of God induce in us that compelling for God and holiness we need. Let those blessed and joyous encounters with Him, those “clusters from Canaan,” awake within us a hunger for more—more holiness in my own heart, more purity in my soul, more of Him in my life.
God, may we long for You, and to be holy in your sight!
Now, for a moment, let us return to the story of the Ukrops family and their stores. I think there is also a prescription for us here. Brainerd paints us a picture of someone pursuing holiness and the holy God. He tells us to “reach forward in the narrow way.” But in a sinful world and godless culture, this pursuit of holiness must be very intentional. We have to decide on it, and then go after it with diligence. I think something that can help us in this regard is to recapture a sense of the holy in many areas of life. We need to ensure that our lives are not just mundane affairs, lived in day-to-day wasted drudgery. Instead, we must see that there is an acute need for holy times, sacred seasons, consecrated places, and sanctified experiences. So let’s create holy things in our lives, and let’s regain a sense of holiness in our hearts.
A good place to begin this purposeful pursuit could be the Lord’s Day. Sabbath-keeping is all about a holy day. What a marvelous idea.* And so, what if…? What if we once again made the Lord’s Day a holy day. We treated if differently. We made it special. What if we made it a day for worship? For rest? For fellowship? For refreshment? For renewal? For honoring God? What if for just one day out of seven we removed from our lives things like work? Business? Busyness? Shopping? Frantic rushing around? Stressful hurry? What if…? What if we took the Fourth Commandment seriously again?
Please understand what I am saying. I am not suggesting a legalistic commandeering of Sundays for religious purposes. To observe the Sabbath should not be a requirement, a bondage. Not now. Not this side of the Cross. But what about making it your personal, freely chosen purpose to do something different with your week, your time, your activity? Could this make a difference in your life? Would you get the rest you need? Would you have the time for family you never seem to find? Would it be meaningful to honor God with one day of your week? Would you live life differently if there were a holy time in your workaday schedule? Why not give it a try?
“I went to the place of public worship, lifting up my heart to God for assistance and grace, in my great work; and God was gracious to me, helping me to plead with him for holiness, and to use the strongest arguments with him, drawn from the incarnation and sufferings of Christ, for this very end, that men might be made holy.” ~ David Brainerd, Diary, October 14, 1744.
*It is interesting to note that Brainerd himself used this tactic himself. In his diary entry for April 16, 1743 he records an encounter with some worldly-minded folk. He states, “discoursed about sanctifying the Sabbath” so as to “solemnize their minds.”