He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts,
who cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true, but
he only gives pain, that he might bring the patient on to health. He
gives pain, but if he did not, he would do no good.
(St. Augustine: Sermon xxvii)
Last week we examined the temptations that Jesus withstood on our behalf in order to draw us deeper into His love for God our Heavenly Father. And I pray that we came away with a real sense of His desire to serve God alone and to fulfill His will for us. This week we shall come to see and grasp the nature of sin and our powerlessness over it; and, because of this, I pray that we shall come to learn that all sin whether subtle or direct threatens to control us. Lastly, I pray that we shall find deliverance from sin through persistent and humble submission to the Lord’s judgment of our condition and His provision of cure.
This morning, we read in the Gospel that Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.(St. Matthew 15. 21) He comes to the borders of the pagan Gentile world –a place which had only heard of Jesus peripherally and the promises made to God’s chosen Jewish people. Strangely enough and often, Christ journeys to the borders of paganism and to places that do not appear to be ripe for the salvation that Jesus brings. Why is this so? Because it is there that He finds those most in need of His spiritual diagnoses and cures. It is interesting that he had just finished a discourse on how sin originates in the inner man’s heart and soul. He said, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with theirlips; but their heart is far from me. (St. Matthew xv. 8) Jesus saw that the pious Jews upheld the form of religion without ever coming to discover their heartfelt need for its true substance.
So, Jesus will find the need for what He brings into the world from foreigners, aliens, and outcasts. Jesus comes upon a foreigner –a Syro-Phoenician woman, to reveal to His Apostles just what kind of person is most rightly related to Him. From a distance, she had learned that the Jews had brought those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatics to Jesus for healing.(St. Matthew 4. 24)Because His cure was swiftly efficacious, she was determined to have it also.She did not waste any time, for we read that she cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.(St. Matthew 15. 22) She comes from afar not for herself but for one who is even further removed from Jesus. She bears the burden of her daughter’s illness within her heart. Her daughter’s misery is her misery. She will learn that Jesus’ misery is our misery. She cries out for His mercy, but we readthatHe answered her not a word. (Ibid, 23)Jesus is silent. As St. John Chrysostom writes: The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. (Homily LII: Vol X, NPNF:I)
Jesus, however, will elicit more from her in order to teach us about true faith –the suppliant posture of the earnest seeker who would draw near to receive His Grace and Mercy.
We learn that the Apostles cannot see what Jesus is doing. While they have been with Him for some time and have witnessed what He can do, they prefer to hoard Him selfishly, so that seeing, they see, and do not perceive. (St. Mark 4. 12) Like many Christians, they settle for the Jesus whose presence is comforting but not confrontational. Send her away, for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew 15, 23) As far as they are concerned He might heal her daughter or not; their chief end is to be rid of this pestiferous annoyance. Theirs is that heartless granting of a request, whereof most of us are conscious; when it is granted out of no love to the suppliant, but to leave undisturbed his selfish ease fromwhom at length it is exhorted. (Trench: Gospel) And yet, Jesus is more interested in her. He will engage her, for He knows that in her heart there is a faith that will reveal the process by which we all must approach Jesus for healing.
Jesus’ first response to the woman is I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew 15. 24)In St. Mark’s Gospel He says, Let the children first be filled. (St. Mark 7. 27) In both, He means that His mission is first to the Jews because they are the children of Promise. Jesus, the Great Physicianbegins to open this heathen woman’s spiritual swelling.The Apostles are silent. She is neither daunted, nor disheartened, nor disturbed. She needs more from Jesus than any of His Jewish brethren. As audacious and brazen as it would have seemed to the Jewish onlookers, she moves closer to Jesus. The more acute the disease, the greater the need for the physician’s immediate and direct attention. Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me. (St. Matthew 15.25) Jesus neither commands nor promises anything.From His heart, He is already ministering healing to her. As Calvin writes,We see then that the design of Christ’s silence was not to extinguish the woman’s faith, but rather to whet her zeal and inflame her ardor.(Calvin’s Comm’s. xvii) Jesus is amazed at this woman. She is courageous, determined, and true to herself.
Jesus was first silent and then discouraging. Now, He cuts into her wound as if to add insult to injury. Jesus says: It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew 15. 26) He compares her to a dog! He uses a pejorative word that the ancient Jews hurled at their Gentile neighbors. Yet, if we look more closely and study him more attentively, we might learn that he is up to something different. Could it be that he is mocking the Jews? He knows that this woman, no matter what her race or cultural origin, might actually be in possession of a faith that will put His faithful Jewish followers to shame.
This Gentile outcast is on a journey after and for Jesus. She is going up to Jerusalem with Him in heart and mind. She needs Him completely. She hangs upon every His every word and she will not its power escape her dogged desire. She will follow Him come what may. She believes Jesus is God’s own Emissary. She responds with, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. (St. Matthew 15. 27) She perceives Jesus’ severe mercy and hard love. She may be a dogand not a lost sheep. But she knows herself to be dog very much in needs of its master’s attention.Jesus can become hers. I am the last and least, like dogs that sit at their master’s feet. But a dog belongs to its master. He is beneath his feet but not cast out; he is under but not forsaken. He depends absolutely upon his master’s care.So she says, Let me be a dog. If you are the master, I shall eat of the crumbs that fall from the table that you have prepared for your chosen people. At any rate, the crumbs shall be more than sufficient for my daughter’s healing.As St. Augustine says,It is but a moderate and a small blessing I desire; I do not press to the table, I only seek for the crumbs. (Serm. xxvii, vol. vi. NPNF) In whatever state you discern me to be in, Lord, let it be true. My daughter is sick, and if I am a dog, let me at least eat the morsels of mercy that fall from your table.I believe that ‘thou hast the words of eternal life.’ (St. John 6. 68) What you give us may be crumbs, but Lord, evermore give [me] this bread. (St. John 6. 34)
With her words, this woman storms the gates of Heaven and conquers its Lord. Jesus says, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (St. Matthew 15. 28) Jesus cauterizes her wound, and her faith ensures that her daughter is healed. In the end, it is her faith that secures the healing she seeks. Faith in Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God and the Power of God, is what always obtains Jesus’ healing for our sin-sick souls. This woman’s faith did not demand that Jesus come down in person to heal her daughter. This woman’s faith knew that the Word could easily retrace the distance she traveled to find her daughter. In faith, she believed that Jesus need speak the word only and [her daughter] would be healed. (St. Matthew viii. 8)St. Mark writes that when the woman was come to her house, she found the devil gone out, and her daughter laid upon the bed. (St. Mark 7. 30)
With our opening St. Augustine reminds us that [Christ] the Good Physician gives pain, it is true, buthe only gives pain, that he might bring the patient on to health. He
gives pain, but if he did not, he would do no good. (Idem) So, we must be willing to endure the pain of hearing the hard truth we learn about ourselves from Jesus. He comes to diagnose our condition and provide the cure. He intends to empty us of any pride that our faith might persist in finding His loving cure. Matthew Henry warns us thatthere is nothing got by contradicting any word of Christ, though it bear ever so hard upon us. But this poor woman, since she cannot object against it, resolves to make the best of it. ‘Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs…. (Comm. Matt. xv.)
With the example of the Syro-Phoenician’s faith and humility let us press upon Jesus to be fed by the crumbs that fall from the His table. In all humility, let us follow this remarkable woman and become dogs who eat of the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. Jesus longs to interact with us as He did with the Syro-Phoenician woman long ago. He longs to find us where we are. He longs to drive all pride and arrogance from our hearts. He longs that we, rather than being offended at His knowledge of our condition, might humbly persist until we secure His loving power. He longs to bring out of us that faith that can move mountains and heal human hearts. Jesus longs for us to stir up that faith that seeks in Him all that He has and will offer.
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities;
but was in all points tempted like as we are, yetwithout sin.
(Hebrews iv. 15)
Monsignor Ronald Knox reminds us that the whole story of the Temptation is misconceived if we do not recognize that it was an attempt made by Satan to find out whether our Lord was the Son of God or not. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 89) And perhaps this is our question too. To be sure Satan tempts Jesus, but we tempt Jesus also. We want to know if He is the Son of God. We want evidence and proof that provide certain facts; we want confirmation. And today on the First Sunday of Lent we are given good evidence that He is, at least, moving towards revealing this truth to us. After all, proofs aren’t bad things; and in this case, we can thank Satan for confronting Jesus and providing Him with the opportunity to reveal to us how He overcomes temptation.
So we begin with our Gospel lesson for today, remembering that we have accepted Jesus’ invitation togo up to Jerusalem. Presumably, then, we are going upnot merely to be recognized as devout pilgrims, but to find out for ourselves just who this Jesus of Nazareth really is. So we read that Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) From the historical record of Saints Matthew and Luke we learn that Jesus was alone. Having fasted for forty days, being truly and fully human, He was hungry. Thus, the Devil will tempt Him at his lowest bodily point, nearing human exhaustion. Jesus is famished and there is nothing in the desert but stones. So, Satan says to Him, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (St. Matthew iv. 3) Jesus knows that God sent Him not to destroy human nature but to redeem it. So why shouldn’t Jesus put the natural hunger of his body first before He moves on? Jesus the Man needs to eat. But Jesus has come to remind us that the natural needs of our bodies are meant to be moderated by the good of the soul. Stones are stones, and bread is bread. Later in Jesus’ ministry, we read that he fed the multitudes by multiplying the loaves and the fishes, not by being tempted but by loving those who follow Him. And besides, the poor ye have with you always, but the Son of God ye have…always. (St. Matthew xxvi. 11)Because the Son of Man is first the Son of God, He will hunger and thirst for [God’s] righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) Things Divine, righteousness and redemption, must come before things human and natural. Jesus prays thus to Himself: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, that….all [other]….things may be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Jesus remembers who He is truly and that He has meat to eat that Satan does not know of. His meat is to do the will of Him that sent…. Him.(St. John iv. 32,34) Jesus is tempted here to sacrifice the demands of His Heavenly mission to the needs of His human body.But He knows that Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew iv. 4)
Jesus’ physical hunger is overcome by His spiritual longing to eat and digest the bread of God’s will.So, where we are, Satan’s first temptation is resisted and overcome by Jesus’ spiritual Sonship. Satan will not be deterred. All right then, thou art feeding on every Word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (Idem) Perhaps this Jesus is called to be an ascetic or a mystic, like the early Christian Desert Fathers, who in denying the body completely can become an angel of God. He has denied the good of the body,Satan thinks, so let this man dispense with his body entirely, cleaving as he does to this ‘Word’ of God. He trusts in God, then let Him deliver Him now, if he will have Him: for he said, I am the Son of God. (St. Matthew xxvii. 43)Then the devil taketh Him up into the holy city, and setteth Him on a pinnacle of the temple,And saith unto Him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew iv. 5,6) Satan tempts Jesus to provoke God to reveal His anointing by sending angels, pure spirits, to save Him from sure and certain death. Jesus has put the good of His soul over that of His body. If you cannot perform a miracle with regard to the body’s hunger, prove your unbreakable unity with God through the mind or the soul, Satan suggests. Cast yourself down; surely God will not let one perish who places the good of his soul above that of his body. Jesus, however, knows that this is no way for the Son of Man to reveal that He is the Son of God. Man’s soul is in a body. God doesn’t intend for us to prove the good of one by destroying the other. The Son of Man must reveal that He is the Son of God by taking on the whole of human nature. That He is the Son of God will require much more than a selfish and desperate cry for God to Anoint Him as Son of God in a dramatic rescue mission from Heaven. Jesus knows that He must use His soul in His body to make the long journey to Calvary. Men must follow the Son the Man along the hard path of suffering that alone can win loving salvation. We must take up our cross and follow Him.
So what more do we learn about Jesus’ nature? Jesus is the Son of God by that inner determination to cleave to His Father’s will and to reveal His way. Jesus the Son of God came down from Heaven to redeem the whole of human nature. The Son of Man should expect no signs and wonders. The Son of Man is made to be the Son of God through obedience to God the Father. While Satan and his minionsdemand signs and wonders, men of faith will see true signs and wonders givenin the Love of the Son of Man, who rather than jumping off a cliff will allow Himself to be hoisted up upon the Cross by others in order to reveal the nature of redemption. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. (St. Matthew iv. 7)
We come to the final temptation. Satan guesses that if the Son the Man will not prove that He is the Son of God by worshiping the needs of His body or demanding that God rescue and reward Him for spiritual sacrifice, there is but one option left. Surely if He is the Son of God as flesh, He can still be tempted by the will to power. Jesus has come to save all men but He wonders if He is held captive and enslaved to His Father’s will as the Son of God? His last temptation is to despair of His obedience to the Father and to think that He is nothing but a slave. He is tempted to think that He might be freed from God. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew iv. 8,9) Satan tempts Jesus to despair of His Father’s Kingdom and to be freed so that He might find a second best with the kingdoms of the world. The temptation here is for Jesus to believe that His power to resist the first two temptations gives Him the freedom to embrace the third. How does it make sense? Well, here we find that Jesus has forsaken everything for God and His kingdom. He has rejected both bodily and spiritual threats to His mission. His act of will in submitting to the Father seems to have rendered Him utterly powerless. His sense of impending weakness is weighing so heavily upon Him in the face of the long, hard road lying ahead that He is tempted to give it all up –to do evil that good may come of it. (Idem, Knox, p. 65) Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (St. Matthew iv. 10) The Son of God is God’s only perfect Son. As God, the Father rules the whole of creation, so He gives meaning to all creation through His Son. That Word has neither meaning nor significance apart from the Father who speaks it. As the Father’s Word is received freely and gladly in Heaven, so must it be on earth. Then the devil leaveth Him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.(St. Matthew iv. 11)
That Jesus is the Son of Man has never been doubted. And too, the Sons of Man are born to become the Sons of God. What the Son of Man reveals to us is that if we are to become the Sons of God, we must go to the Cross with Jesus to die. The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (St. Matthew xx. 28) At the end of our Gospel lesson for today we read that, Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) Luther tells us that the angels came down from Heaven to feed Him. This is the proper order and nature of God’s provision. The Son of Man is hungering and thirsting for the righteousness as the Son of God. God the Father feeds Him, nourishes His soul, and now cares for His body. It follows that the Son of God has become the Son of Man in order to serve and redeem all of us. The angels who minister to the Son of Man find Him alive and well as the Son of God. The Son of God will go on to win our salvation on the Cross of Calvary. There Satan will attack Him one last time. Will we, with Christ, go up to the Cross to experience Christ’s ultimate loving victory?
"Behold we go up to Jerusalem."(Luke 18.31)
In the Gospel for today Jesus announces his final journey to Jerusalem: Behold, we go up to Jerusalem,he says, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished.Today we go up. We have changed our direction. For we have just completed the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany. In those liturgical seasons, we meditate upon a certain coming down-God’s coming downin His Son, the Word’s coming down from the Father to be made flesh, Jesus’ coming down to purify and cleanse our consciences of the unclean, the unholy, and the unrighteous. But todaywe begin to go up,to travel up with Jesus to Jerusalem. He must go upto die and rise again. Behold, we go up to Jerusalem and we go up with Him to gaze upon and share in His passion, to be healed and transformed by that vision of the Divine Love. Behold we go up to Jerusalemin order to see and experience the love of God, and how the love of God while enduring all manner of malevolent rejection, will keep on loving. In faith we go up to Jerusalem, in hope we reach forward towards greater wisdom, and in love, we desire to find a passion that can be made our own –that principle of Primal Motion that alone can save, alone can heal.
But this coming downand going upseems confusing. We faithfully follow Jesus, we hope for the best, but we do not understand what it means to go upto His death. Death seems to be a kind of going down, like going downinto the pit or going down into the grave. What profit is therein my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? Shall it declare thy truth? (Psalm xxx. 9) Like the Apostles who went upwith Jesus to Jerusalem, we might be a bit befuddled. For, the more they went up, the less they grasped how they were actually going down. Jesus said that the Son of Man…shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on:And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. (St. Luke xviii. 32,33)But we read that the disciples understood none of these things, and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken. (St. Luke xviii. 34)The Apostles and we do not understand this. We can’t be going upif our understanding has not emerged up out of the dark pit of ignorance.
But as they will soon learn, going upto Jerusalem with Jesus will involve illumination or enlightenment of a most unusual kind –the illumination that Jesus is God and that God is Love. The eyes of the Apostles, our eyes, will be opened; there is no doubt about it. But not before, with the blind man in this morning’s Gospel, we beg Jesus to come down into our miserable condition. Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy upon me. (St. Luke xviii. 38) We cannot go up to Jerusalem with Jesus until we beg for the mercy of God in Jesus Christ to come downto open our eyes. Jesus asks the blind man what he desires of him. The blind man responds, Lord, that I may receive my sight. (St. Luke xviii. 41)The blind man receives his sight and so too can we if Jesus comes down to us. And immediately he received his sight, and followed him….(St. Luke xviii. 43) Vision is the door that opens the eyes of the heart to know Jesus and to go up with Him to Jerusalem.
Vision is the reward bestowed upon the man whose faith persistently seeks out the source of true healing. What we think should be the gateway to the external and visible world alone, becomes the door to a spiritual vision that goes up to the Cross of Christ’s Love. Christ says in this morning’s Gospel that his impending suffering and death will be necessary that all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished. (St. Luke xviii.31) What the blind man will see and the Apostles will go up to behold is a vision of a healing Love that is always going up and into heart of our Heavenly Father. St. Paul speaks of this Love in this morning’s Epistle. King James’ able translators penned it as Charity.
Charity is the Queen of the Theological virtues. It outruns faith and fulfills all hope since its character and nature is the love of God that knows no end. St. John tells us that, God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God in him.(1 St. John iv. 16) Love is Charity, and Charityis the everlasting expression of God’s nature. Charity is that one essential virtue that must command all others. St. Paul suggests this morning that Charityis preeminent because it alone binds God to Man and Man to God. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. (1 Cor. xiii. 1-3) Articulate speech, theological knowledge, and earthly kindness alone can never save a man, says St. Paul. They go out but don’t necessarily go up.All sorts of men can speak eloquently and inspirationally. Such virtue does not save a man. Countless others can have right belief, near-perfect knowledge of theological truth, and spiritual understanding. Such virtue do not save a man. Generous and liberal people may spend their lives feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless. Such virtue do not save a man. What they are missing is Charity. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.(1 Cor. xiii. 4-7) Charity is that constant and persistent love of God that comes down in order that we might go up with Jesus to the Cross and beyond. It sums up in one word God’s inestimable mercy, pity, compassion, and forgiveness that comes down from Heaven in order that we may go up and back into Heaven. It fulfills all hope in His desire for every man’s redemption. It sees in all men the possibility of salvation, though their ways be wicked, their hearts hardened, and their motives murderous. Charity comes down to conquer all vice. Why? Because God is love, and God’s love alone can come down into the lowest remove from Himself to lift sinful man back up to Himself. It is of Charity’s nature to persistently attempt to reconcile all men to Himself because God’s love is incessantly itself.
Charity is the love of God that is forever alive in the heart of Jesus Christ. Jesus is both God coming down into Man and Man going up into God. In Jesus Christ, we find in one what men have tried to divide since the dawn of time. Of course, the devil will do all he can to divide these two aspects of Charity. As we go up to the Cross of Christ’s Charity, we shall see that Jesus will be tempted in His unjust suffering to think that God is no longer coming down to Him. In His innocent death, He will be tempted to go up and call forth His legions of angels. He will be tempted to feel that God’s coming down and His going up have come to a tragic end. Rather than going up and into the embrace of His heavenly Father’s Charity, He will be tempted to come down from the Cross and abandon God’s way of working out our salvation.
But as we go up to His Cross, we shall find that He will not come down into these temptations. He is God’s Charity made flesh for Man; He is Man’s Charityand Love for God made divine. He goes up in order to die for us. He will come down in order to rise in us. What we think of as two distinct kinds of Love will persist as one in the heart of Jesus. Sin divides; Love unites. The God-Man’s going up and coming down are but one expression of the ceaseless love of God in the heart of Jesus Christ.
This morning a blind man became conscious that Jesus Christ was passing by. His cry goes up and Jesus comes down.St. Cyril of Alexandria remind us that the blind man had faith in the love of God that he perceived in the heart of Jesus.
Let [us] admire…the steadfastness with which the blind man proclaimed his belief, for there were some who, while he confessed his faith, cried out for him to be silent. But he did not cease, nor lessen the confidence of his prayer…For faith knows how to combat all things and overcome all. (On the Gospel: St. Cyril of Alexandria)
Christ is God’s Charity that has come down from Heaven so that we might go up.True Charity comes downin order that through Him we all may go up with Jesus to God. The vision of Charityin the flesh will come downto us this Lent so that we maygo up to the Cross to die. Let us pray that this coming Lent we shall play the man and see, with the blind man,the Charity that Christ is, cherishing and treasuring not only the vision but enduring His incessant love, as old loves fade and come down into death and true Loveis stirred to go up into New Life. Our hearts will be broken if we go up to gaze upon this Charity; but in their breaking comes an opening, into which the loveof God in Christwill flow, grow, expand and triumph. Christ is always coming down. Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, to die, to rise, and then to see His love that we must share with others as we come down to touch the hearts of others.
And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
The New Testament is full of examples of parables; there are actually thirty in total. We encountered one of them last week in theParable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.A parableis an external and visible story or illustration that carries the mind into an interior and invisible truth. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parablealways involves the story of human beings; never places their moral education in the power of talking trees, birds, or brute beasts; does not mock or deride man’s condition; and represents the creation accurately as the work of a loving and engaged God. Thus a parable is not a fable. Nor is a parable a mythsince myth normally conflates or blends the divine and human, heaven and earth, good and evil in such a way that what is depicted seems to picture more of a conundrum than a solution. A parable, then, involves men and their reconciliation to God, focusing on one aspect or mode of human life that leads to or away from union with Him. A parable…moves in the spiritual world, and never transgresses the order of the natural world. A parable uses the external and visible to lead the mind to the discovery of inward and spiritual truth. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parablesof the New Testament are always about the choices that man makes in this life and how those choices affect his ultimate destiny. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants men to know the Good, but also because He wants them to will it. He wants them to will it since without moral decision a man cannot be saved. St. John Chrysostom writes thatJesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would convert, he would heal them’ (cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). God never forces Himself upon any man. He respects man’s freedom. That freedom is all about the ability of faith to ponder, study, explore and investigate what is not immediately known but which can be discovered and found beneath the surface of reality. In the parables, each of us is invited to study Jesus, to know Him, and thus to follow Him to his Kingdom. Pope Benedict says that Jesus Himself is the Parable…who, in the sign of His humanity, hides and at the same time reveals His Divinity. (Idem)
Yet, for Jesus to become the Parable of our lives, we must embrace His Word and reveal His Nature to the world through our thoughts, words, and works.Of course, every human being is already a parable.Man’s external and visible form already reveals an inner and otherwise hidden spiritual nature. Through his words, expressions, gestures, and actions man reveals what kind of man he truly is. He is a parable of his spiritual condition. You can tell the spiritual nature of a person by his appearance. You can detect if he is temperate, prudent, just, or courageous. You can tell if he is faithful, hopeful, loving, merciful, kind, generous, and so forth. Man is a parable that illustrates outwardly what he embraces inwardly.
St. Paul know this only too well. So, he maintains rightly that the parable of his life must be instrumental in leading other men’s minds to the nature of what is going on in his heart. He offers his experience as a parablefor the honest man who will plant his feet on the ground and resolve to follow Jesus Christ. The parable of his life will give external and visible witness to a true inner love from Christ that has transformed his heart. And itwill make a mockery of any false teaching which disregards the parableas an unnecessary and cumbersome way to Christ. He says, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck…in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen…in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…(2 Cor. 23-27) In other words, conversion and discipleship involve much more than cursory and perfunctory faith in God’s Word, evidenced in the parables of certain Christians’ lives that make a mockery of redemption.St. Paul maintains that if man is to faithfully endure the Word of God as it moves him from the external and visible surface of the world well into the depths of his own fallen self that sees the need for salvation, he must suffer. Conversion involves suffering. Man must suffer to find the truth that he does not have. Who is weak, and I am not weak? the Apostle exclaims!(Cor. xi. 29) The parableof St. Paul’s life reveals that the work of becoming a Christian involves the discovery of spiritual suffering. The process is painful as the soul suffers to confront this painful truth. The process is painful as the soul conforms to the truth. The process is painful as the soul suffers at the hands of the world who hates this truth. Yet, in the midst of the pain that suffering conversion brings, St. Paul insists, If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The confession of true weakness will yield to God’s strength. My Grace is sufficient for thee. My strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. xii. 9) St. Paul’s life is a parable of the way of the Cross. This is the parableof spiritual pilgrimage that involves the struggle for conversion, sanctification, and salvation.
All threats to this conversion parableare neatly summarized in today’s Parable of the Sower.Asower went out to sow his seed, Jesus tells us, andsome fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (St. Luke viii. 5-7) Some Christians hear God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls is trodden down by the habitual busy-ness of this world, and so they never become part of the parable.[Men] have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement…[having] laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) These men are easy prey to the Devil and his ways and, thus, have no time for Christ’s parable. As St. Cyril says, Into…minds that are hard and unyielding, no divine or sacred Word will enter. (On the Gospel: St. Cyril) They are hard and unyielding because their souls are addicted to the influence of all worldly things. They are too busy to notice the real nature of the parable.
Other Christians temporarily hear the Word of God with excitement and joy; it sounds so promising. But they prematurely anticipate its rewards without understanding the depth of faith that must establish its roots. They fall awaybecause they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) The parable reveals that for man to discover his true self and his need for a savior he must endure much pain and suffering. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no deepness of earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26) These are shallow Christians who love the husk of Christianity –the sounds, smells, colors, and movements of a beautiful form. And, as St. Cyril writes, As long as [these] Christians are left in peace, they keep the faith; but should persecution arise, they will be of a mind to seek safety in flight. (Idem) Their faith is superficial and their commitment to the work that is demanded of the Christian laborer in theparable is too costly and laborious.
Finally, there are Christians who hear and more honestly receive God’s Word but are choked and killed by thorns which sprung up with it. (St. Luke viii. 7) These men have become part of the parable. Here, the Word is growing, but only alongside that inner anxiety, fear, worry, and looming despair that eat away at and finally kill faith. They are crushed by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) The old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) The thorns and briars symbolize temptations to past sins that have not effectively been overcome through the soul’s habituation to virtue. St. Paul knows only too well that one or all of these temptations threaten the meaning and fulfillment of today’s parable.
The conclusion of the Parable teaches us that the seed of God’s Word can grow up effectually only in deep, dark spiritual soil that is weeded and fertilized by faith that opens itself completely to God’s Grace. Only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort can the Word of God, Jesus Christ,take root downward and bear fruit upward. (Isaiah xxxvii. 31)If we follow St. Paul, then we learn that each condition of soul described in Jesus’ Parablecould be a pitfall for us. Jesus knew this when He offered the Parable. Christ speaks to each of our natures. He challenges us to ask which level of receptivity best describes our relation to Him. He wonders what kind of parable our lives are revealing to the world. Every level, save the last, is, after all, inadequate to salvation. So Christ challenges us to take the utmost care with the cultivation of the seed of His Word in our souls so that our lives might be parables of men who earnestly follow Him to His Kingdom.
With St. Paul then, let us conscientiously die to all that threatens the life of Christ the Word in our lives. Let us fight the good fight against evil in our lives, so that holding the Word with a noble and generous heart, and enduring courageously…we shall yield a harvest. (St. Luke viii. 15, Knox) And though we shall suffer, we shall also, like St. Paul, become a parable to the world that reveals how inward faith in Grace gives hope to the world for the harvest of souls that God’s implanted Word intends.
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
St. Matthew xx. 16
The Church in her ancient wisdom is nothing if she is not keenly aware of the dangers that human nature poses for the process of redemption and salvation. Think about it. If she were not aware of human nature’s fallen tendency to fall back and away from the vigilance that is required in this process, she would not constantly and habitually provide seasonal themes in her lectionary that remind man of the dangers that accompany his spiritual journey. We have just emerged from the season of light -that of Epiphany, in which many a man is usually bedazzled by the brilliant and beautiful vision of God’s love and good will in the life of Jesus Christ. And were the Church not conscious of man’s tendency to treat it more like a deer in headlights than a vision of the glory to come, she would approach the period between Epiphany and Lent innocuously and tenderly. But thank God that the Church in her prudence has established the season before Lent with more caution and concern. The Church knows that man is more likely than not to fall into resentment and so to become hardhearted. She knows that her sheep are easily distracted by theories of good works and comparative goodness, and so she has given to us the Gesima Sundays, between the season of Epiphany-vision and that of Lenten-mortification.
So today we begin the Gesima Season- comprised of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sunday, named from the Latin words meaning seventy, sixty and fifty days prior to Easter. In this season the Church reminds us of the temptations and dangers that most commonly interrupt the Christian’s preparation for the coming Lent. In Lent, the Christian is called to see and experience the suffering and death of Jesus Christ in a life-changing way. So first Mother Church calls us to cultivate and nurture those habits of mind which will ensure that we are sufficiently prepared to encounter our Saviour’s Passion for us.
Our lections for this Season progressively help us to prepare our bodies, souls, and spirits for a closer walk with [Christ] up to His Cross. Today we focus on our bodies and then on our relation to other people. Our work must begin in the external and visible world before we move to the inward and spiritual. We might find this odd, but we shouldn’t. Adam chose to make a false god out of the creation. What ended up moving and defining him now, more than the grip that God once had upon him inwardly and spiritually, was the outside world and other men. Adam was first tempted through his senses. So it is here that our gesima-work commences.
St. Paul tells us that our work will be like running a race. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, he compares us to athletes or runners who are in training and will compete to win the prize. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. (I Cor. ix. 24) St. Paul appeals to an external and visible image of athletics to rouse our souls to spiritual exercise. If we are faithful to our calling, we should be striving to win a prize, the way runners do. For our mind’s eye to be focused on the spiritual journey that lies ahead with Jesus, we must temper and moderate our bodies’ physical passions. Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. (I Cor. ix. 25) We must remind ourselves that because we seek a spiritual and eternal prize- which is eternal salvation, our physical natures- appetites, impulses, feelings, emotions, and desires, must be tamed and then subordinated into the service of our soul’s good. What and how much we eat and drink should only be what is absolutely necessary for running the race that is set before us. Thus, the virtue of temperance will be needed for our spiritual race. St. Ambrose says that what we observe and seek most in temperance is tranquility of soul. (De Offic. i. 42) So if our passions and appetites are moderated, we shall not be consumed with the false gods of the external and visible world and our souls will be focused on the race. St. Paul says that people whose loyalties are divided and who worship others gods do it to obtain a corruptible crown (I Cor. ix. 25) –they seek earthly rewards of impermanent meaning and unlasting significance. But we Christians run to obtain an incorruptible crown –a gift and prize of eternal worth and lasting importance. So we are called not to run blindly, erratically, pointlessly and capriciously. Since we know our end, we should moderate and temper our physical lives in such a way that best suits us to pursue our spiritual goal or end.
St. Paul is running to obtain the incorruptible crown.The man who has tempered his appetites and is moderate in all things desires that the free gift of God’s Grace should change his life and move others to share in the same. The effort is directed at all who desire to receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. (1 Peter v. 4)
That the crown on glory that fadeth not away is a gift and cannot be merited by human effort is nicely summarized in today’s Gospel Parable. Here Jesus says:
…The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an household which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them
into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others
standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the
vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and
saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him,
Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard;
and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. (St. Matthew xx. 1-7)
Archbishop Trench reminds us that the Parable is offered in response to the question which St. Peter asked in the preceding chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Peter had said, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (St. Matthew xix. 27) Jesus had promised the Apostles…twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Ibid, 28) He said also that others who had forsaken all…would receive an hundred fold…and…everlasting life. (Ibid, 29) But He concluded his promises with the words of the Gospel parable. But, many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Ibid, 30) Here, Jesus warns us about that kind of spiritual attitude that might very well imperil our salvation.
The parable teaches that some, like the Apostles, who were already industrious workers, would be called first and promised one penny for their labors. Others would be called later, perhaps out of idleness, with no more specific promise of payment than whatsoever is right [or just]. (Ibid, 4,7) When the workday was over, the Lord of the vineyard would instruct his steward to pay the laborers. But notice this interesting detail. We read that steward was to pay the laborers beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. (Ibid, 8,9) Jesus tells us that the last are called first. And the order is not well-received. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12) It appears that the first have a real problem with the last. They are moved by envy and jealousy and so want to begrudge the last the reward promised only to the first.But the Lord rebukes them with these words: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? (Ibid, 13-15) As Canon Crouse reminds us, It matters not when they come into the vineyard- at morning, midday or the eleventh hour; the point is that they are called into the labor and that they work for one reward- the one penny that God’s free Grace provides. (Parochial Sermons) The first are meant to set the example of temperance. Temperance in all things must not only tame our excessive appetites but also moderate our temptation to think that we ought to receive more than what God gives to all repentant sinners or to all who are equal in their sin.
Some commentators have said that the reward of one penny is meant to symbolize the eternal and incorruptible reward of salvation. Archbishop Trench thinks this is wrong, and I agree with him. If the one penny symbolizes salvation then it would appear that the first workers or the men who are full of resentment, bitterness, envy, jealousy, and a begrudging spirit are saved, since we read that they received every man a penny. But bitterness, envy, jealousy, and immoderate or intemperate ambition can never land a man in Christ’s Kingdom. The one penny symbolizes God’s Grace. If it is received humbly and gratefully as what we neither desire nor deserve, in body and soul because the heart is sound and the body tempered, then we shall be transformed by God’s Grace.The last shall be first…. We might even, in this Gesima Season, in body and through soul, hear Jesus’ invitation to go up to Jerusalem as the call that binds us closer to all men. We live in a sinful world. We Christians are sinners. We have contributed to the exceedingly sinful nature of our world. Perhaps God’s Grace is given to us first, so that being temperate in all things, by way of example we might behave like the last and the least. If we do so, our humility and meekness might be perceived in our demeanors and dispositions. They might even awaken the hearts of others to that householder who longs to give us all the one penny of salvation!
And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea,
insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but Jesus was asleep.
(St. Matthew viii. 24)
Throughout the season of Epiphany-tide you and I are subject to the wonderful manifestations of God in His Son, Jesus Christ. We have learned that He has revealed His Divine Kingship to scientists or Magiseeking Him out through the study of nature. We found too that at the age of twelve He was already lingering behind in Temple at Jerusalem, wholly consumed with His Heavenly Father’s business, studying the Word that would define the whole of his life. Next, we discovered that He makes the best of all wines and saves them at last as a reward for them that will follow Him through death and resurrection to His Kingdom. And last week, we saw that the key to supplicating and securing His healing love is to trust that He need only pray and send His Word and all manner of sin might be overcome. In sum, I pray that we have been allowing ourselves to be moved both by who Jesus is and how we are called to respond to His Mission of Salvation.
Today, we continue to learn more about both Him and us. In our prior lessons, we have discovered the great wonders wrought in the life of our Saviour. Those signs and wonders were done on land in the security and stability that we rely on with too much ease and too little thankfulness. In the wisdom of our Master, the Lord Jesus, we must now launch out with Him onto the stormy sea of human life. The stormy sea, its proclivity to uncertain and abrupt movements, its threat of instability and impending doom, are all in the mind of the Saviour as He takes us through it to another place. We must endure, withstand, and persist through the stormy seas of life if we are to cultivate that faith in Christ that not only yields protection and care from nature’s vicissitudes but that also attacks and defeats our inner demons.
So, today we read that when Jesus was entered into a ship, his disciples followed
Him. And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but He was asleep. (St. Matthew viii. 23, 24) Matthew Henry reminds us that Christ does not have us follow Him across the sea in a pleasure-boat but in a common and less comfortable fishing vessel. He tells us also that They, and they only, will be found the true disciples of Christ, that are willing to go to sea with him, to follow him into dangers and difficulties. (M.H. Comm.) Christ shows us that the way to Heaven is not easy and that we must be willing to follow Him into uncertain times under unpredictable conditions. We ought not to seek out the comfortable and safe way necessarily. Christ intends to bring us into a state where our faith in Him must be strengthened and our hope in His power securely established no matter what the circumstances.
The Apostles in today’s Gospel were eager to follow Christ in faith. Through what next transpires, Christ shows us the state and nature of their faith. And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish. (St. Matthew viii. 25) Origen of Alexandria tells us that Christ allowed the storm to arise and Himself to fall asleep to elicit the fear that lay concealed in the hearts of His disciples. (Origen: The Testing of the Apostles) Christ comes to us to reveal not only His wisdom, power, and love but the condition of our souls in relation to Him. How often are we eager to follow Christ, on land, in the near reach of security, stability, and safety of kith and kin? How often do we want our spiritual journey to be a bed of roses, bereft of any thorns and worms! How often does our faith fail when we must struggle with some great storm. The storm might come to us, not in the form of being tossed about upon the wild seas, but it might come to us in another way. Perhaps we learn that we have contracted a deadly disease. Perhaps we have finally admitted to ourselves that we have been living a life of extreme unhappiness under the pretense of peace and joy. Perhaps we have found ourselves in the grips of an addiction that we cannot beat. Whatever the form the storm takes, it hits us and we are full of anxiety, worry, and fear. Origen reminds us: But the Lord was asleep. O great and wondrous thing! Does He who never sleeps now sleep? Does He now sleep that rules the heaven and earth? Is it He who never wearies or falls asleep that here is said to fall asleep? (Idem) The storms of life overtake us, we are tempest tossed, we reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at our wits end. (Psalm 107: 27) And all the while we feel that the Lord Jesus does not care, He couldn’t be bothered, He can no more be intreated, His mercy is clean gone forever, and His promise has come utterly to an end for evermore. (Ps. 77, 8,9) Jesus is asleep! we exclaim.
The Apostle and we must learn that in the body of His humanity, Jesus sleeps. In the power of His Divinity, he both brings on the storms of life and then proves His mastery and control over them. Jesus intended that the fear of the Apostles should be revealed and manifested in the storm at sea. Jesus intends that our fears should be disclosed and exposed as we are assaulted by the storms of earthly life. We must overcome all fear and despair if we would follow Jesus. Origen insists:
O blessed and truthful disciples of the Lord! You have with you the Lord our
Saviour, and you are in fear of danger? With you is life, and you are fearful of
Death? Fearful of the tumult of the sea, you thus waken its Creator, who is beside
You, as if, while sleeping in His Body, He could not calm the waves or hush
Them to rest? (Idem)
Jesus is with us always and yet we fear and despair. Jesus can calm all of the storms that our fallen condition is called to endure. Jesus can overcome all of the storms that He visits upon us. He brings them to us so that we might trust all the more in His power over them. He carries them to us so that our faith in Him might be greater than our fear of what earthly sickness, natural disaster, human sinfulness, and spiritual poverty can do to us. Down upon us, He showers these storms so that we might put our whole trust and confidence in Him! He says to the Apostles: Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? (Ibid, 26) Next, we read: Then He arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. But the men marvelled, saying, What manner of Man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him! (Ibid, 26, 27)
We fear and tremble in the midst of the storms of life. Our faith is weak. We struggle with besetting sins so that we might discover our utter dependence upon Jesus’ healing power. Jesus says, Draw near.We are stricken with illness and sickness so that we might find spiritual health in His presence.(Idem)What do we fear? We fear sickness and disease. We fear death. We fear uprooting and overturning the false forms of peace that have dominated relations with family and friends. We fear ourselves and the sins that we hide deep within our souls. We cry: Lord save us. Carest thou not that we perish? (St. Mark iv. 38)
We want to be saved from the storms of life. Christ will save us from them. We must put our whole trust and confidence in Him. But He might not save us in the way that we desire. He will not save us from all suffering. Sometimes He requires that we suffer in order to build our faith and trust to hope in His Grace. He might deliver us from sickness or He might not. He will deliver us from sin, that is for sure. But He will require us to work with Himas we die to sin and come alive to His righteousness. Jesus is not a Magician. He respects us too much for that. He wants to perfect our minds and purify our hearts as they learn to suffer gladly for Him in order to be made good. So He will require that we play our part in His work as we die to sin and come alive to righteousness. It does no good for God to work miracles in our lives. Miracles are like fine jewelry and clothing -they fade in worth, value, and meaning as soon as they are obtained. God in Jesus wants us to work with Him as we are in the process of being perfected and saved. Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?
We fear because our faith is small. Our faith ought to be the anchor of our souls. It ought to secure and ground us in the knowledge and love of God that we find in Jesus Christ. Our faith ought to remind us that though we be tossed about by storms on the sea of life, we aim for the distant shore where rest will be secure in the Lord. Jesus wasn’t bothered or awakened by the storm. He was sleeping and resting because He was preparing for a far greater storm that He would endure before He obtained salvation for all of us. The great storm of His own affliction in His suffering, passion, and death awaited Him on the horizon. And yet, what could He do, but approach it with courage! He was perfectly wed to the goodness hidden in His Father’s will. He was perfectly determined to carry it out.
So, today, dear friends, we must pray for an increase of faith in the Lord. Let us pray for that faith that feeds upon the saving power of Jesus Christ whose sovereign power can vanquish all sin and overcome all evil. Let us pray for that faith that trusts that the Lord who has died, risen, and ascended and ever makes intercession for us with the Father. Let us pray for that faith that rests confidently in the Holy Spirit who always longs to steady our hearts and anchor our souls as we sail through the tumultuous seas of life. Amen.
ADVENT is a coming, not our coming to God, but His to us.
We cannot come to God, He is beyond our reach; but He can come to us,
for we are not beneath His mercy. (Austin Farrer)
Throughout our spiritual season of Advent we have been preparing for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ at Christmas time. He has been coming to us in one way that we might see and experience Him in another. Of course, we know that Christ is always coming to us. It is in the nature of God that He never ceases to communicate and express Himself in the rule and governance of creation and to the hearts and souls of the faithful. God speaks His Word and things are created, preserved, and related to one another. God speaks His Word and men and women, with the ears to hear, learn to obey His will and walk in His way. God never ceases to speak to us, and yet in specific seasons of the Christian Year, He speaks in one way more than another. In so doing, He is always preparing us for a more advanced coming and deeper union with Himself. In Advent, he speaks as one who readies and prepares us for the birth of His Word in our souls on Christmas day.
So in Advent, the Word speaks to us, calls and summons us to make ready for birth, new birth, our births. Yet for the Word to be generated within us, it must be heard and remembered. And what a challenge this task seems to be, in a world with so many words that the Word cannot be heard. If the Word is heard at all, it seems to be a Word heard only partially, refined and suited to the desires and pursuits of a godless people. Think about it: is it not the case that so many people only ever hear what they want to of God and His Word? The tendency is evidenced in the post-modern Christmas. Wouldn’t you say that there are lots of people who get rather sloppily sentimental about the birth of Christ? They like to think about His being born in a manger nestled away from the noisome pestilence of consumer society. Others tend to focus on atmospheric tenderness and climatic love that somehow permeate the environment with a global spiritual warming. Still, others center their hopes on the ever-romanticpeace on earth and good will to men.Even the best intentioned of respectable bleeding hearts hear what they want to hear of and from the Word, and leave the rest to God, or so it would seem. As a result, in the end, truly the Word is not heard, and most men remain all the worse off for it. Left with the bits and pieces of a deconstructed God and His half-heard Word, lukewarm believers will spend another Christmas indulging a self-satisfaction that leaves them as bereft of God’s plan and purpose as ever before. Thus the world will indulge another meaningless Christmas. T. S. Eliot wrote that Against the Word, the unstilled world still whirled/About the centre of the silent Word. (Eliot: Ash Wednesday) God’s Word remains mostly silent as the world kills its nature in a whirl of inane words.
In Advent, Christ has been speaking to us. He is the silent Word addressing us from the centre of all reality. He has called us into the silence of stillness that we might hear His Word. On the First Sunday in Advent, Christ the silent Wordcame to purge the temples of our souls. We were then exhorted to cast off the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light. (Advent Sunday Collect) On the Second Sunday in Advent, we learned that the silent Wordis the permanent and unchanging Wisdom of God, which we must begin to hear with patience, comfort, and hope. On the Third Sunday in Advent the friends of John Baptist heard the Word and witnessed its power, learning that the approaching silent Wordintends not only to be heard but received and handed on, as what heals and gives new life to those who hope in His love and power. And now on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the silent Wordis still heard, as the sole cause of true rejoicing, from the ground and center of the soul, in the wilderness of the soul’s self-emptying, from a space at last removed from the false gods of this world.
Today we end our Advent journeying, in order to welcome a new beginning. The silent Word that we hear can be received only in the heart and soul that has been emptied of all pride so that humility might courageously submit to its scope, rule, and sway. Today we hear the silent Wordthat has touched and transformed John the Baptist. Who is John the Baptist, we ask today? He speaks for himself. He confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ. And they asked him, What then? Art thou Elias? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that Prophet? And he answered, No. (St. John i. 21)Who is this man that awaits the coming Word, whose ears long eagerly to hear the silent Word? Indeed he is one whose own silence becomes the only space suitable for the silent Word to be heard. He is the one in whom the silent Word can find meaning and purpose. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias. (St. John i. 23)He tells us that the silent Word has been heard in the empty wilderness of his desert home.The sterile ground of his wilderness has yielded no fruit; he has repented of his sins and discovers within himself no power capable of producing any manner of godliness. Now in the barren land of his soul’s frailty, the silent Word has been heard and finds articulation in the spirit of hope. Make straight the way of the Lord, orOpen up a direct route in your souls so that the silent Word can be uttered and heard.The sound and substance of this Word can stir within us only when the clutter of all other disturbing distractions are quelled. Our minds must be stilled and our souls awaiting only on the coming speech of the silent Word.
The contrast of the Word that John hears and awaits with rejoicing, with the words of a world that will not hear the Word, is striking. Over and against all human words that reveal only humanly conceived expectations, comes the silent Word which longs to be heard. The silent Wordspeaks to us from the mystical depths of Divine Desire. The Word will be explained and articulated in the human life of Jesus Christ. The silent Word will yearn and long for the salvation of men. The silent Word will lovingly carry those who hear into the destiny of eternal joy. St. Paul says, Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice (Phil iv. 4). He too, like John, hears the silent Wordand now urges others to rejoice in His immanent approach. Like John the Baptist, he tells us to be careful for nothing (Phil. iv. 7) –tobe anxiously determined and moved by none of the things of this world. Rather he says rejoice, and again I say rejoice. The silent Wordprepares us for itself. The silent Wordintends to be heard. It is God’s Word, which shall be spoken in and through the life of Jesus Christ. It will be the cause for great rejoicing and never-ending happiness. But it can be born in us only if and when, because weare careful for nothing,we are ready to hear this silent Word.
Being careful for nothing is, as John Henry Newman said, the state of mind which is directly consequent on the belief that "the Lord is at hand." Who would care for any loss or gain today, if he knew for certain that Christ would show Himself tomorrow? No one. (Parochial and Plain Sermons)Advent issues a needful wakeup call for Christmas. But more importantly, Advent issues an alert that the Lord is [always] at hand. What if we are destined to die this evening? Are we ready to face the final timeout in our lives? Once we are dead, our last opportunity to be made right with God will have been lost. John the Baptist’s life was cut short, but not before he became a faithful witness to that spiritual disposition which alone makes ready for the coming Word. He empties himself and so is ready for death at any time. Are we preparing ourselves for the same immanent death?
Emptying ourselves is a necessary effect of having come to know and confess the truth about ourselves. In the 8thCentury, the Venerable Bede said this about John the Baptist: John Baptist gave his life for [Christ]. He was not ordered to deny Jesus Christ, but was ordered to keep silent about the truth (cf. Homily 23: CCL 122, 354). The silent Word of Christ was heard. John does not keep silent but tells us the truth about who we are in relation to the comingWord. John Baptist did not keep silent about the truth and thus died for Christ who is the Truth. Precisely for love of the truth he did not stoop to compromises and did not fear to address strong words to anyone who had strayed from God’s path. (Benedict XVI: Audience, Aug. 29, 2012) God’s silent Word will not be heard if we compromise the truth about ourselves, the truth that confesses that we are in desperate need of what the coming Word must bring to us.
Coming to the truth about ourselves is only ever the outcome of thoughtful reflection and prayer.Rather than judging and analyzing others, let us then return into ourselves and repent with John Baptist. Let us claim with the great Forerunner and Precursorall that we are not and have failed to become.Then the coming silent Word,so unheard by a world that whirls around with words, will begin to overcome our vice with His virtue, our sin with His righteousness, and our death with His new life. Then truly He shall bemade flesh in us this Christmas Tide.
Turn us again, O God; / show the light of thy countenance, and we shall be whole.
(Ps. lxxx 3)
If Advent is about making ready for a Christmas birth, today St. John the Baptist exhorts us to witness to the coming Word in Hope. (Fr. Crouse: Advent Meditations) St. John Baptist’s vocation or mission is to prepare us for the true and lasting coming of Christ –that birth that promises to make us into the children of our Heavenly Father. St. John Baptist’s life reveals what must precede the coming of Jesus Christ in our hearts and souls. His witness illustrates the severe nature of our preparation. His final days are a testimony to the watching and waiting that are incumbent upon all who must trust in the coming salvation and deliverance that Christ alone can bring.
St. John the Baptist is a true Apostle and Evangelist. He has such confidence in thetruth that he was unconcerned about our reception of it. What I mean is that he wasn’t really afraid of offending or disconcerting others. He doesn’t offer a theory to be considered for rational acceptance. He proclaims the truth. He informs us that Christ the Saviour is coming. He says even that once his message of preparation is heard, He must increase, and I must decrease. (St. John iii. 30) John the Precursor and the Preparer is on a mission to compel us to share in his self-emptying and spiritual death. I must die, that Christ may come alive, John exclaims. Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (St. Matthew iii. 2), he insists.
Repentance is not optional. It is a necessary first step if we would be saved by the Saviour! John’s message comes with urgency. We ought to respond to it now. John has no time for Christians who have opinions and notions that they have arrived at by themselves. Christ is coming to us as Saviour of the world. Should we make the mistake of indulging a luxury that we don’t have with time that is too precious to waste and energy that ought to be put into repentance, we shall be lost forever.
We don’t pay enough attention to St. John the Baptist. He is one of the most important of the Evangelists because he came to know himself in stark contradistinction to God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. First, in the barren wilderness or desert, and then within the abandonment of a lonely prison cell, John repents of his sins. He empties himself of himself, and then waits and watches for the One whose coming alone can give new life and meaning to a nature that has died to everything. He must increase and I must decrease. (Idem)
Repentance is the acknowledgment of our self-willed alienation from the sovereign God. God is the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe. His rule and governance are at work behind the scenes of living facts which contribute to the unfolding of His will. Do we think of this? God will not be mocked. God’s truth will prevail. God’s will shall be done whether we choose to find it or not. Be not deceived, God has a plan for our universe and He expects us to come into the knowledge of it! What God has already done is preparation for what He will do. He has a plan for us. We are called not only to see it but to will to be a part of it.
When we repent, we take the necessary steps to ensure that we are willing to die to whatever is not of God in us. We must move our sin out of the way. Jesus says elsewhere if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee…if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee…for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (St. Matthew 5. 29, 30) Repentance must be followed by the real intention to go and sin no more, to bring sin to death in the heart, that the ever-coming Saviour may have His way with us.
Yet we must acknowledge also that repentance does not promise immediate consolation or instant gratification. Oftentimes God gives the repentant man additional suffering so that his soul might cleave all the more necessarily to the Divine Will. When John Baptist called King Herod to repent of the sin of marrying his brother’s wife while his brother was yet alive, he was cast into prison. When we urge others to repent with us, they often resent us to the point of wanting to punish us too. The world in all ages is far too enviously insecure and frail to heed the call. Herod was a fragile, immature, insecure, and apprehensive narcissist who lived in fear of losing what little power he had. We are the same when we reject the call to serious repentance. Repentance is humiliating. It cuts to the quick of the soul’s real condition. As a result, so many people cannot bear to hear of its urgent necessity.King Herod and his wife knew that they had sinned. But they did not want to hear about it.
What we must learn with John is that repentance is not an end in itself. The English word repentance comes to us from the French repentir, meaningto show contrition, sorrow, remorse, and regret over evil or sin committed.Repentance responds to Christ’s coming light and is a confession of deepest sorrow for preferring false gods to our Heavenly Father. The idol or false god might be a besetting sin or the idealization of any earthly attachment. John the Baptist reminds us that Jesus cannot come to us as long as there is anything in the way –either of goodness or badness. (O. Chambers, Aug. 22) Repentance must acknowledge that sometimes lesser goods have become gods to us. Countless numbers of Christians place self, family, or friends, earthly comfort, calculations, and considerations before God. Thus they are never blessed. Why? One can be blessed only if and when God comes first.
Repentance cries: He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me…I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord…He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, the latchet of whose shoes’ latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (St. John i. 15, 23, 26, 27) Repentance brings a man to see his own unworthiness. John thinks to himself: I was indeed this and that, but He came, and a marvelous thing happened. (O. Chambers, Aug. 22)Of course, what happenedto John cannot occur before his repentance has pushed him to the extreme of being undone. According to St. Gregory, John wonders if his impending execution and death can be reconciled to Jesus’ coming. (Greg. Sermones…) Gregory says that John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, ‘Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another’ (Idem), that he may know whether He who in His own person had come into the world, would in His own person descend also to the world below. (Idem) Can this hell that I suffer be consecrated to and reconciled with the essence of Christ’s coming, John asks? Can a loving and compassionate God allow self-emptying repentance to yield only an anguish of unjust suffering that ends in death? Will suffering and death that precede knowledge of His full coming be taken up into Christ’s salvific life? Will Jesus come into death and carry the righteous into salvation and reconciliation with God the Father? Jesus answer is gentle but firm. Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (St. Matthew 11. 4,5)
Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? (St. Matthew 11. 3) How can John Baptist, who had baptized Jesus in the river Jordan, who had seen the heavens…opened unto him, and the Spirit of the Lord descending like a dove and lighting upon Jesus (St. Matt. iii. 16), ask this question? Has his faith failed? Has his imprisonment overwhelmed him in a sea of doubt and despair regarding his vocation? John is fully human and so naturally enough He might desire some relief before rather than after his earthly death.
Jesus will overcome and compensate for any loss that we suffer as we repent and prepare for His coming. Blessed is he who in the midst of suffering and death can yet hear the Good News of the healing and salvation that Christ is bringing to others. Blessed is he who suffers gladly for Jesus and sees his own suffering as a gift from God to be offered up as a witness to penitential surrender. Jesus expects more from John because John has died to himself. John’s repentance brings him into consciousness that his suffering and death must not stand in the way of the new birth and life that Jesus Christ brings to his soul. John surrenders His life as a prophesy for what His Lord and Master will imitate. Jesus allows John to provide Him with the pattern and model of His own future.
John Baptist prepares us to welcome Christ’s birth inwardly and spiritually. Jesus asks, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. (St. Matt. xi 7,8) John’s calling was not thrown off by the cataclysmic shocks to the natural world. Nor was he pampered and comforted by human riches. John was moved violently within to deny himself and embrace the coming Jesus. Yet he was required to endure doubt, confusion, and uncertainty also. He is the precursor of our own suffering.
So, as Romano Guardini puts it:
Into the depths of John’s lowest hour then would Jesus’
Word have been spoken: ‘Blessed is he who is not scandalized or offended
in me.’ The Lord knows his herald; knows his need. The message
sent by the mouth of his uncomprehending disciples into the
darkness of the dungeon is a divine message. John understood.
(R.G. The Lord, p. 25)
At last, John understood. Because John will suffer and die unjustly, God’s Grace rewards him with new life in another. First, John must repent of his own innocent importance that dangerously threatens to ruin Christ’s coming into his soul. John’s reward is a vision of the new salvation life that Christ brings to others. Our reward will be the same if we are not offended in Christ (Ibid, 6), and we look for no other to come alive in us.
Then, again, if one were willing to believe only those things which one knows with certitude, one could not live in this world. How could one live unless one believed others? How could one know that this man is one’s own father? Therefore, it is necessary that one believe others in matters which one cannot know perfectly for oneself. But no one is so worthy of belief as is God, and hence they who do not believe the words of faith are not wise, but foolish and proud. As the Apostle says: “He is proud, knowing nothing” [1 Tim 6:4].And also: “I know whom I have believed; and I am certain” [2 Tim 1:12].And it is written: “You who fear the Lord, believe Him and your reward shall not be made void” [Sir 2:8].Finally, one can say also that God proves the truth of the things which faith teaches. Thus, if a king sends letters signed with his seal, no one would dare to say that those letters did not represent the will of the king. In like manner, everything that the Saints believed and handed down to us concerning the faith of Christ is signed with the seal of God. This seal consists of those works which no mere creature could accomplish; they are the miracles by which Christ confirmed the sayings of the apostles and of the Saints.
Belief is the foundation of man’s relationship to the external and visible world and to his fellow men. Children trust and believe in their parents. They depend upon them radically and they trust them instinctively. Adolescents trust and believe in their parents less so and, yet, nevertheless they use trust and belief to rely upon others for any number of relationships. Belief is a faculty that is used by all humans at all times in relation to things and other people. Adults trust and believe in other adults in all sorts of ways. I trust and believe in the dentist to know more about my teeth than I do. I do the same with the doctor, the carpenter, the electrician, the East-Indian computer technician, the Filipino ATT Customer Service Rep, and so forth. Even without having tested their DNA’s, trust that my father is my father and my mother is my mother. Trust, faith, and belief figure necessarily in all of our relationships. So, in general, we trust or believe others in matters that we cannot know perfectly ourselves. And yet, no one is more worthy of belief than God. Why? Well, He is the Thinking Being that not only quickens but defines all things that exist as becoming-beings. He is the Self-Thinking Thought and Unmoved-Mover that brings all things to their appointed ends. For most creatures, He does this through the Laws that he imposes upon them. For men and angels, He does this through laws of being for existing and then with laws of goodness that men and angels can willingly embrace and follow if they would find ultimate perfection. Of course, for men, to will the Good is impossible without the indwelling of the Father and His Logos or Word made flesh -Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. Fallen man has confused, distracted, and disabled his spirit and thus He must rely upon the Salvific Christ to unite him to the Father by the Spirit. Without welcoming Jesus Christ into the fallen soul, man will remain forever alienated from the life of God the Holy Trinity. Again, it is essential for man to trust and believe in Christ if he will be saved. Christ carries with Him the seal of the Father and the power of the Spirit. To entrust oneself to Christ and the believe Him and to believe in Him are all necessary for salvation. Trust and belief open to what the Father has done in Christ the Son and by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Trust and belief desire to welcome the Son’s miraculous victory over sin, death, and Satan into the human heart. Trust and belief long for the effects of Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to be operative in human life. And thus, I long to be incorporated into the Body of Christ -the Church, so that I might benefit from the inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. I believe in what I cannot effect or do. I believe in the one who has done it and welcomes me into the merits of His success. I believe in the one who dwell in me so that He might work out my sin and work in His righteousness. The Mircale of the Incarnation can be productive of my salvation only when I make an act of will to trust and believe in Jesus Christ.
The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast
off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.
(Collect Advent I)
Advent is so hard to celebrate properly in our own times. Long before this season even begins we are assaulted by Christmas and a secular Christmas at that. On or even before Thanksgiving we are blinded by the garish lights and sparkling tinsel. We are assaulted by the sentimentally, syrupy Santa Claus songs of secular society. We are bombarded with advertisements and offers meant to make this coming Christmas like none other. We are not, to be sure, aware that any Advent is present at all.
So we are thankful that the Church still calls us into Advent as we gather here this morning. Advent is a Latin word meaning coming to. And the liturgical season which bears its name is all about God’s coming to or into His world. More specifically, of course, it is about God’s comingfrom Heaveninto the world in the life of His Son Jesus Christ. And so Advent is in one way about the historical, salvific life of Christ. Advent is also about the future when Christ shall come to judge both the quick and the dead. And so it is about death, judgment, heaven, and hell. But in between time past and future time is time present, where we find ourselves today. And in it, we learn that Advent is a time of Christ’s coming to us nowin heart and in soul. And if it is that, then we learn also that Advent is a time of penitence, a time for casting away the works of darkness and putting upon us the armour of light. (Collect)We pull out our purple Altar frontal and vestments to remind ourselves that this is a season of fasting and abstinence. This is a season of preparation- when we prepare our hearts and souls for the Coming of Jesus Christ once again at Christmas time. It is a time of reflection. Looking into our hearts we struggle to clear away the dust and cobwebs which cover bad old habits, persistently present vices and the temptation to avoid facing ourselves in the light of Christ’s coming. It is a time of true meditation and contemplation, in silence with stillness. In this season we pray that we shall be inspired and incited with a sense of promise, expectation, and hope. In this season we pray that we may yearn the more earnestly to do what we must so that we might be found worthy on the great and dread Day of Judgment.
I have said this, and still, it is not easy. Nobody, not even Jesus Himself, said it would be.But the alternative to embracing Christ’s Advent coming is perilous and fearsome. The dangers are great. Father Ronald Knox paints us a picture of the common variety of men who, in the course of life’s short span, never get around to contemplating God’s coming in Jesus Christ, and what they end up with. He writes of those who never think about the Advent themes of death, judgment, heaven or hell. He speaks of pagans and also of lukewarm and half-hearted Christians. Hear what he says:
Very few people feel sure that they are going to hell. Those who die in the faith, but without charity, mostly think, wouldn’t you say, that they are all right, they have just scraped through. And those who have lost the faith, or who die in sin outside the influence of faith, probably lay some flattering unction to their souls-it will be all right, they think, they will be given another chance. Up to the moment they are taken away, this world of creatures treats them no differently than any soul predestined to eternal life…So perfect is the illusion of security around them, that they forget God, and forget that they are forgetting him…And then, quite suddenly, the bottom falls out of that world…God, who gave that material world he has come from all its reality, is now the only reality left; and with a great hunger of loneliness the heart that was made for him turns back to him-and God is not there. The sinful soul has created for itself, as it were, a godless universe.’
Life is at its end, and so many people are left with nothing. The material world and its gods are gone. The body is expiring either painfully or just naturally. And the soul is left with a godless universe. God who was always approaching, always coming, was treated as nothing and no one, and thus is absent to the barren soul. Those who have spent their lives either ignoring salvation or presuming that their superficial religiosity would save them, face the dark void.
Quite frankly, such a prospect should frighten the living daylights out of us. It should awaken us out of our slumbering sleep. It should make us appreciate all the more the Church’s Advent, her season of solemn warning an impending doom. It should awaken us to the fact that Jesus Christ’s Advent- His coming to us, is reflected in the three ways that we experience time- in the past, in the future, and in the present. He came to us in the past in our flesh at the Incarnation. He will come to us in the future to judge both the quick and dead. He comes to us now through His Word by Grace and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus comes to us now to make us living members of his Body, partakers of the life that He lived in time past, reconciled to Eternity, and offers to us as our only meaningful future. Jesus comes to us in Advent to visit, wash, cleanse and defend us as we pray for entry into His Kingdom. But how do we embrace this hope of Christ’s coming to us now? How do we welcome His persistent coming, answering that knock on the doors of our souls, responding to that tap at the window of our spirits? We find ourselves, if we are honest, examining our own sins. We look into ourselves and admit who we are, what we have done, and what we need. We seek that something which comes from God, and yet too often thensink back into ourselves, into our fears and anxieties, into our desires and wants, into those gods that keep us from the sacrifice needed to welcome His coming. He has come, we believeit,we say. He is coming, and we want to be ready, we exclaim with the best of intentions. We cry, Hosanna to the son of David; blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.(Matthew xxi. 9) But we slip back, maybe to our stallsin the temple where we engage in false commerce and evil exchange. We seem lost once again. We have given up so many false gods, only to be threatened by the demonic spirits of cynicism, despair, and hopelessness. Our houses seemed swept clean and in comesnotChrist, but the devil. The devil is always comingalso. We have tried to walk honestly as in the day, not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. (Romans xiii. 13), but we feel the impending sense of doom. It seems that for every step forward that we take, there are two steps backward.
So what are we to do? Today we are called to remember that the process of Christ’s comingto us is no easy business. It does involve tension, struggle, and pain. Our Gospel lesson this morning reminds us that the one who comes to us, though superficially welcomed with the songs of Hosanna,cannot be received casually. If He is to come into the temple of our souls in time present, as He did in the temple of Jerusalem in time past, we are to know that He intends to purge and to cleanse. He intends to drive out and banish all false commerce, wrong thinking, wicked speaking, and evil living. As His tough love intended to make the temple at Jerusalem a house of prayer long ago, so too does He intend to make our bodies and souls the temples of His prayerful Spirit in this world now. Advent is all about Hiscoming.He comesto us with the piercing eye that sees what is in us and what must come out of us. He comes to us to elicit a full and honest confession of who we are now because of what we have been in time past. He desires that we should name, claim, confess, and experience sorrow for our sins. This we must do if we intend to have any part of His coming sanctification, His coming redemption, and His coming salvation.
Our Epistle this morning reminds us that this comingof Christ’s tough love to us in Advent is not matter of sentimentality or emotion.Owe no man anything but to love one another (Romans xiii. 8), St. Paul exhorts. This is the love that offers itself to others in forgiveness and hope because it is chiefly concerned with receiving the coming love of God in Jesus Christ. This is the love that keeps the commandments because this is the foundation upon which Christ’s loving redemption can be built and can weather any storm. Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Ibid, 9) To prepare for Christ’s coming we must love all men. This will enable to see more clearly andknowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. (Ibid, 11)
On this first Sunday in Advent St. Paul exhorts us with urgency to cast off the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light…that we may welcome the Lord’s coming love, and put…on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans xiii. 12, 14) The end of each day reveals the shortening of the time we have to open our hearts to the Advent comingof the Lord’s purgative love. The night is far spent, the day is at hand (Romans xiii. 12). This Advent let us welcome Christ’s coming in a meaningful way. Let us welcome the coming of Christ’s loving correction and even chastisement, as He comes to purge and cleanse the temples of our souls. Let us allow Him to prepare us for a deeper sense of His comingat Christmas. If we don’t do this, we shall find sooner rather than later, that it will be…too late -too late, when we awaken to the fact that we had forgotten that we had forgotten Him. Amen.
STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by thee be plenteously rewarded… .
(Collect: ‘Stir Up’ Sunday)
Today we leave behind us the fertile green season of Trinity and prepare for the penitential season of Advent. This is Stir UpSunday,and on it, we are called to be stirred up, or aroused, awakened, alerted, and agitated, as God summons us to prepare once again for the birth of Christ the Word in the Church. Today we hope to continue our spiritual growth, the seeds planted in Trinity, by turningour gaze towards our spiritual roots. Christmas is about the birth and new life of God’s Word in our souls, so today is about being stirred up for Advent’s repentance and death. So let us see if we can discover how to be stirred upspiritually in order to have a clearer view of what lies before us on the road back to God’s Kingdom.
Our task does not seem easy. The world we inhabit surrounds us with ideas and notions that frustrate our faith in the Kingdom that is not of this world.These days, traditional Christianity seems to be somewhat regarded as an old straight-jacket that must be cast off for an opennesseither to all of the world’s other great religionsor to the prevailing winds of relativistic emotion that dogmatically insists that one way is biased. (To be honest, they mean the Christian way!)This is because what moves post-moderns most is feeling, emotion, and sensation. Post-modern man cannot abide the conflict that necessarily results from taking a stand, holding to a position, or believing whole-heartedly in one system and not another. The will to power is behind it all. It emerges frominterior insecurity which is fearful of any suggestion that one way might be right and the others wrong. Because he lacks inner authenticity and integrity, post-modern man lashes out at any challenge to the much easier accommodationof all.Post-modern man cannot stand to be challenged since then he might have to think! And because his real inner fear is free thought, post-modern man cannot be stirred upto find the faith in what he does not yet see. For faith is an argument about things unseen. (Heb. 11.1)And one needs this faith to see the absolute need for God and then to desire more and more of His rule, governance, and power in human life.
Of course, the need for God or the dependence of all life upon Him is neither an idea unique to Christianity nor inimical to reason. Long before Christ’s Incarnation, the ancient world found evidence that He alone creates, governs, and sets into motion the whole of the physical universe. Men followed the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, and galaxies in search of God and His truth. In the currents of the seas, the winds of the air, the power of fire, and in the earth’s good harvest they found evidence of God’s guiding wisdom and attentive love. They were stirred up, if you will, by the discovery of a knowledge they did not create and whose truth they never fully understood. They dug deep into the earth, sailed the seven seas, and climbed the highest mountain peaks testing the limits of their natures and hoping to find God. Ancient man was so stirred up by what he encountered in nature that he set about to govern the created order. Having tamed and redirected nature into the service of his needs, still, he was restless and stirred up by the longing to learn more about the God he was discovering. Ancient man was diligently determined to discover the divine mind and heart that lurked behind the curious complexity of creation.
But ancient man learned also that such a quest or search is never without its perils and dangers. It is always a temptation to settle for less when it is hardto seek for more. If the truth that we find is not fodder for a faith whose increasing curiosity and wonder always search for God’s will and way, we shall stop growing intellectually and spiritually. The great Greek hero Odysseus learned this the hard way. He could not return home to Ithaca from the Trojan War until he had learned much more of who he should be in relation to the gods. His detractors thought him a fool. But he was forever stirred up by Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, to learn more in the hot and fiery caldron of adversity. Odysseus was stirred up because he dared to believe that there was so much more to know and learn to make him a much better man for his nation and for his people.
Like Odysseus, the Jewish prophet Jeremiah stands out as an example of one who is stirred upby God because he hankers, hungers, and hopes always for the more that God promises to offer to His people. Jeremiah lived six hundred years before the birth of Christ amidst a people who had given themselves over to unbelief, compromise, and despair. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had conquered Israel and Judah from the east. The Jews fell prey to their enemies without because their hearts and souls had failed to love and desire God from within.
Yet, in the midst of it all, Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, was stirred upby the call of the Word of God. Jeremiah was stirred up bythe nearness of God’s Word: Before I formed thee in the belly knew thee and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. (Jer. i. 5) Like Odysseus, Jeremiah became startled and struck by the providence of God his maker. Over and against God’s persistent presence and power, he saw a people possessed by sin and unbelief. But, still Jeremiah heard God’s still small voice. What stirred him up was God’s desire for His people. God’s Wordwas calling Jeremiah forward to hope in a future when God’s promises would be fulfilled. Jeremiah would prophesy and proclaim:
BEHOLD, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David
a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall
execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be
saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he
shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Jer. 23.5)
Jeremiah knew that man was made to find communion with God. Jeremiah knew also that human suffering was no reason to abandon God. He told of the coming of a King who would fulfill God’s promise by bringing salvation and deliverance. He stirred up Jeremiah to discern and perceive that God the Savior would save His people.
So Jeremiah was stirred up, shaken, and alerted to the need for God’s redemption of the world which lives, and moves, and has [its] being [in Him](Idem). Jeremiah had a vision of the eternal desire that makes and moves the universe. Jeremiah knew that the same God longs to save His people. He knew too that every human being is made to be stirred up to find God’s love in that infinite passion that will come down from Heaven in Jesus Christ to save us.
But how can we get as stirred up as Jeremiah? Jeremiah’s needfor God became his deepest desire. Perhaps we too need to start discovering our real need for God. Like the ancients, like Jeremiah, and like the people in today’s Gospel, we ought to realize that suffering should not drive us away from God but to Him! We might not be suffering under the alien tyranny of a foreign power like the Jews. But maybe the alien power that rules and governs our society belongs to Satan. Maybe the Devil is moving us to worship gods who are strangers and aliens to God’s truth. They try to convince us that earthly and worldly gods alone can fulfill our spiritual hunger. Perhaps they are like the Sirens who tried to detain Odysseus with earthly lust and sensuality against his intended spiritual destiny.
Or maybe they are like the Apostles in today’s Gospel, who are too earthly minded to be of any heavenly good! Five thousand men have been following Jesus to hear His Word. They grow hungry and the Apostles, naturally enough, jump to an earthly reasoning. Then St. Philip comes to the conclusion thattwo hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little. (St. John vi. 7)Philip had already witnessed so many of Jesus’ miracles. Yet, look here. He is notstirred up at allto have faith in God’s provision. Jeremiah says,I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void; and the heavens, and they had no light…. I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, and all the birds of air had fled. I beheld, and, lo, the fruitful place was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the Lord, and by his fierce anger. For thus hath the Lord said, the whole land shall be desolate…. (Jer iv. 23-27) Jeremiah saw that the creation could not help him. He realized that the creation is a desolate desert that flees at the presence of God because He alone can stir us up.
Today, we must be stirred up to see that only the Lord can foster and foment faith out of unbelief, hope out of despair, love out of hate, good out of evil, and life out of death.Today we bring our hunger and thirst, our wants, our needs, our sin, our sadness, our pain, and our suffering to the feet of our Savior. Let us be stirred up enough to prepare for God’s coming in Jesus Christ. The One who has taken barley loaves and fishes and fed the five thousand, what shall He do for us if we put our whole trust and confidence in Him? In our Collect for today, we pray, Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people. (Idem) God calls us to have a change of heart and to turn our attention to him in an act of will. We then pray that having turned towards Him, we might plenteously bring forth good works. (Idem) These are the works of watching and waiting for God, like the prophet Jeremiah. Watching and waiting might seem rather passive. They are not. They are active virtues that are stirred to eagerly anticipate the coming of God in Jesus Christ. They are active virtues that in all humility surrender to God’s power and wisdom. With them alone can we be plenteously rewarded because we have suffered to learn what God will do for His people.
Thy faith hath made thee whole…
In the course of the green season –when the Church emphasizes spiritual growth and fertility, we read much about the miracles of Jesus. Our English word miracle is a translation from the Greek word dunamis, and it means mighty work or power. Archbishop Trench says that a miracle is an outcoming of the mighty power of God, which is inherent in Christ himself, that great power of God. (Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord, p. ) A miracle is a manifestation of God’s power, through Jesus Christ, His expressed Word, and by the power of the Holy Ghost. Most of the miracles found in Scripture can be traced to Christ in the days of His Incarnation. They are manifestations and revelations of God’s power, which are effected directly or indirectly through Christ himself. John Donne tells us that there is in every miracle a silent chiding of the world, and a tacit reprehension of them that require, or who need, miracles.(Trench, p. 16)
Miracles are offered from God to man in order to remind us of that power which we are habitually in danger of forgetting. This is the power that must, at times, startle and shake us out of an otherwise somnolent and sleepy spiritual sloth. Through miracles, God reveals Himself to the Jews. Through miracles, God reveals Himself, in Jesus Christ, to their descendants. Through miracles, we find that curative dynamism that intends to reveal a power that carries man from nature back to God. What is a man to be healed of, you might ask? Everyman is to be healed of anything that stands between him and his Maker. The particular instance of healing is not what is important. God intends His power to elicit from man a deeper consciousness of his absolute need for and dependence upon His Maker for his salvation and deliverance.
In today’s Gospel lesson we read of two miracles which should encourage us to seek out the power of God in Jesus Christ for our own lives. We read of one healing that is sought out personally by the sufferer and another vicariously through entreaty and prayer. First, we find healing that is sought out desperately on behalf of another. Second, we find the disposition of one who must interrupt and help us to better understand that disposition that seeks out healing in the first place. The second healing that we read about today in the woman with the issue of blood interrupts and instructs the ruler who seeks out his daughter’s healing. Thus the power of God is obtained by one who then teaches the other about what the spiritual nature ought to be that seeks out healing for the self and others.
First, of course, there is the ruler who comes to Jesus, honors him, and begs him to come down to heal his daughter who has just died. My daughter is even now dead, but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live. (St. Matthew ix.18) And so Jesus arises and with His disciples follows the man to fulfill his request. Then something interrupts their journey so that Jesus can reveal to the ruler what should have preceded his intercession for his daughter. Remember, the order of the healings is all important. As Jesus journeys towards the ruler’s house, someone touches Him. Behold, a woman, which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him and touched the hem of his garment: for she said within herself, If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole. (St. Matthew ix. 20,21) Situated between the ruler’s petition and Jesus’ effective response to it, is another kind of character. Christ knows that the interruption will teach the ruler about a virtue that he needs.
So the woman with an issue of blood twelve years interrupts the journey into healing for the benefit of our enlightenment. This woman is, as it were, another self, placed between our prayers for others and God’s response to them. She is really an alter-ego of the ruler who desires that Jesus will resuscitate his daughter. She is what he ought to have been before he sought out Jesus for his loved one. She represents that spiritual character and disposition which must interject itself into the occasion of prayer before a man becomes fit and ready to pray for others.
So what does this mean? Think about it. How can we possibly approach God with worries and anxieties about others until He has made us right with himself? No doubt there is nothing wrong with wanting the healing of others and our loved ones. The example of the ruler provides us with real humility; here we find a man honored in the earthly city who stoops down to visit Jesus for a power that he did not possess. Yet is it enough to humble ourselves before Jesus with supplication for others? The woman in this morning’s Gospel furnishes us with a faith that seeks out Jesus first for the healing of her own soul. She needs Christ’s healing. She has suffered physically for twelve years. She is not too proud to stand out from the crowd and confess her own weakness. She knows that she cannot supplicate Christ for others until she has supplicated him for her own sins. She knows that she is sick and she seeks a cure. She cannot help herself and thinks herself far less worthy than the ruler. So she surmises that she might just touch the hem of Jesus’ coat in order to be healed. She is not only sick but lowly in her own eyes. She has spent her last mite on physicians trying to find a cure. So she pushes her way through the crowd in order to reach Jesus. She knows that because of who He is the very garments that cover His skin will be sufficient for her need. She touches him. Jesus, perceiving that virtue has gone out of Him (St. Luke viii. 46), says to her, daughter be of good comfort, thy faith hath made thee whole. (St. Matthew ix. 22) Jesus has sensed that one member out of many in the crowd has reached out to Him with a special kind of humility and faith. She is one whose humility reaches out for what it does not deserve but must obtain. So the woman’s character reveals to us that humble sense of unworthiness that knows even some brush with Jesus will elicit a healing that none other can give. She is a sign too of one whose faith reveals such trust that a mere touch with no words will be sufficient to find the cure that Jesus carries to all men.
A sick and sinful woman in need reached out to Jesus Christ with faith. There can be no doubt that Jesus was thronged by a multitude of sick, diseased, and sorry people. But one woman’s faith reaches out to touch Him in silent humiliation. The commentators remind us that she might have touched His garment, been healed, and gone away with a healing and restoration that was as concealed and hidden as her original disease. But Jesus would have none of it. The kind of faith that the woman used to procure Jesus’ miracle must be brought out into the open so that its earnest goodness might inspire others to imitation. This is the kind of faith that must travel out of fear and trembling into the clear light of God’s healing embrace. The woman with the issue of blood would have been banned from temple-worship and from participation in the religious life of the Jews by reason of her illness. She concluded that her illness was a result of her sin and that the healing of the ruler’s daughter was of far more importance than her own inconsequential and forgotten existence.
She hoped to remain in concealment out of a shame, which, however natural, was untimely in this the crisis of her spiritual life; but this hope of hers is graciously defeated. Her heavenly Healer draws her from the concealment she would have chosen; but even here, so far as possible, He spares her, for not before, but after she is healed, does He require the open confession from her lips. She might have found it perhaps altogether too hard had He demanded this of her before; but, waiting till the cure is accomplished, He helps her through the narrow way. Altogether spare her this painful passage He could not, for it pertained to her birth into the new life. (Trench, Ibid, 150)
Daughter, be of good comfort, thy faith hath made thee whole. (Idem) Her faith has conquered Jesus’ heart and procured His virtue. Her entry into new life must be a public and not a private affair.
The world is full of well-intended men who seek temporary relief from their sicknesses from experts, seers, sages, doctors, and philosophers who have all kinds of earthly knowledge. Those seeking out their services have tended to put body before soul and flesh before spirit. And thus it must be with the greatest interest that we turn our attention to today’s miracle story. For today we must learn to turn once again to Christ first with all of our ailments, sicknesses, and diseases of body, soul, and spirit. We must approach Christ with the deepest faith in His power to heal. Christ brings out the faith of the woman with the issue of blood in order to make public what must never be concealed or hidden in us. Christ desires to elicit a humble dependence and persistent faith that can help others to find Him also.
Many throng Christ; His in name; near to Him; in actual contact with the sacraments and ordinances of His Church; yet not touching Him, because not drawing nigh in faith, not looking for, and therefore not obtaining, life and healing from Him, and through these. (Trench, Ibid, 149)
We must approach Christ with hearts stirred by deepest faith and trust. That faith must be informed and defined by a real sense of our own sickness and thus the need for Christ’s cure. It will do no good to think that the substance of Christ’s Redemption is for other people and then with the healing of their bodily ailments or the postponement of death. Our salvation was paid for by the blood of the Son of God. Faith is NOT Speaking into Existence what WE want, it's BELIEVING and OBEYING what Jesus Christ wants for us. (Martha Mac)
So today let us in all humility with a sense of our utter unworthiness approach our Saviour for healing. With St. Paul, let us be filled with the knowledge of [Christ’s] will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that [we] might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col. i. 9,10) And all of this because a woman with an issue of blood has taught us to reach out and touch the hem of Christ’s garment. Amen.
What is easier to say ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’ or ‘Arise take up thy bed and walk’?
(St. Matthew ix. 4)
Simon Tugwell reminds us that the one and only comment on prayer that Christ gave to His Church is that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven. (Matt. vi. 14…in Prayer: Living with God, p. 80) So, a sure sign that we have not received the forgiveness of sinsfrom Jesus Christ is our failure to forgive others. When we do not forgive others, we can rest assured that the forgiveness of sins does not rule and govern us from the throne of our hearts. We take it for granted that Our Heavenly Father will forgive us repeatedly, will wink at our sins, and disregard what we consider to be minor foibles. We treat forgiveness of sins like some kind of entitlement benefitthat we deserve for being card-carrying Christians. But what this reveals is that we do not treat sin, confession, forgiveness, or Christ’s command to Go and sin no more with much seriousness. Rather than seeing ourselves as those who are always most in need of forgiveness and so mustwork out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. ii. 12), we are filled with pride over whatever goodness we think we possess and we are threatened by the goodness of those who, rightly, and even charitably, do not find our spiritual levity and superficiality either attractive or enticing.
So, let us ask ourselves, If what stops us from receiving and extending the forgiveness of sins is our own pride?Are we too arrogant or hubristic to confess our vices and to realize that the forgiveness of sins alone leads to new life? Has an immature addiction to fear and anxiety quashed all hope for potential inner healing and transformation? Do we fear the opinion of others if we claim and confess utter powerlessness over the sin in our lives? Perhaps we have built a hard and fast wall around our past interior trauma to shield ourselves from ourselves? So, perhaps, we spend our days trying to show the world that we are sane, sound, and successful. But the truth of the matter is that inwardly and spiritually we are broken, wounded, suffering, and sinful. Pride commands us to put on a good face, and so we move on appearing to be one thing while in all reality we are quite another. Pride tells us that we can hold it all together, fend for ourselves, do perfectly well without anyone’s help. Yet, when we encounter goodness in others that we do not possess, our pride begins to quiver and shake, our security teeters, our self-reliance wavers, and we envy that goodness we are afraid to pursue. So pride turns into envy. Dorothy Sayers, in her commentary on her translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, says this:
The sin of envy always contains…an element of fear. The proud man is self-sufficient, rejecting with contempt the notion that anybody can be his equal or superior. The envious man is afraid of losing something by the admission of superiority in others, and therefore looks with grudging hatred upon other men’s gifts and good fortune, taking every opportunity to run them down or deprive them of their happiness. (D.C.: Purg. p. 170)
The envious man is afraid that thesuperiority of other men’s giftsmight threaten and devalue his own. And so his thoughts, words, and even works aim to destroy his privileged neighbor and deprive him of any goodness. Falsely thinking that the goodness he lacks can never be found, he is determined that no other man should ever find it either.
Of course, pride that turns into envy kills the forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of others. This is a temptation for us all. Accepting the preeminent place of God’s forgiveness is no easy thing, especially because our world defines truth and error, right and wrong, and good and evil by changing and shifting standards of feeling and emotion. Most of us, when left to our own devices and desires, measure out forgiveness in so far as it promotes and protects our underdeveloped and fragile egos. Sometimes we think that we have forgiven others, and we feel proud of ourselves, not realizing that from the position of our supposed moral superiority we disdain them and we rejoice that their weakness depends upon our generosity. At other times we find forgiveness costs too much, and so we withhold it, all the while envying him whose life seems to move along quite effortlessly without it. We feel sorrow and anger at such prosperity and success. If our unforgiveness has hurt another, we rejoice in our power to begrudge another man his share in goodness, and so we rejoice over his sadness and hurt. He deserves it, so we think. But in all three cases pride and envy combine to hurt ourselves and others because we have never truly discovered the forgiveness of sins.
We see both the danger of these sins and the alternative virtue in this morning’s Gospel lesson. And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.(St. Matthew ix. 2) Jesus not only brings the forgiveness of sins to fallen humanity butis determined to offer it as God’s response to that faith that humbly longs for true healing. Forgiveness is always the primary business of Christ’s mission to men. It is God’s first response of love to His faithful people. He comes first to heal the sickness of the soul and then, only perhaps, the ailments of the body. As Archbishop Trench remarks, ‘Son, be of good cheer’, are words addressed to one evidently burdened with a more intolerable weight than that of his bodily infirmities. Some utterance on his part of a penitent and contrite heart called out these gracious words which follow, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.’ (Miracles, p. 157) The man does not ask for the healing of his body, but his soul cries out for the relief of an even greater inner burden. He is not proud but humble, and so does not envy Jesus His Goodness but seeks it out with a passion that words cannot utter. So Jesus declares, Thysins be forgiven thee. (Idem)
Thus the Scribes are wholly unnerved. And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This manblasphemeth. (Ibid, 3) If a mere mortal had claimed such authority, he might be rightly condemned of usurping and stealing that power that belongs to God alone. What they did not see was that God was in Jesus reconciling the world to Himself. (2 Cor. v. 19) Yet, we sense something more at work in the hearts of the Scribes. Were they bothered most because Jesus claimed the power of God? Or were their priestly prerogatives regarding ritual atonement for sin being threatened by a power they did not possess? Jesus knew that they were moved by pride and envy. And so He says, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith He to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house.(Ibid, 4-7) Jesus declares that it is easier to say,Thy sins be forgiven thee,than to say, Take up thy bed and walk. But because the Scribes have never known the true effect of the forgiveness of sins that Christ brings, He proceeds to heal the man’s body to show that His words have power to bring about a generous spiritual cure also. Take up thy bed and go unto thine house. (Ibid, 7)
Today we learn that the healing medicine that Christ brings to us is twofold. First, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins….(1 St. John i. 9) Repentance is needed since our sinful flesh is always too ready to side with the cruel enemy of our souls. The things of this world press hard upon us, either to terrify us out of our duty, or humour us into our ruin. (Jenks, 221) Thus the Great Physicianinstructs us to canvass our hearts to find those thoughts and desires that run contrary to God’s will for us. Thus, we must not walk, in the vanity of [our] mind[s], having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through…ignorance…because of the blindness of [our] hearts. (Eph. iv. 17, 18) The healing that Christ brings to us is a response to the confession of our sins. We prepare for this on Sundays with our Collect for Purity:Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy Holy Name. (Collect for Purity)We confess our sins in the light of Christ’s presence as our minds are illuminated by His wisdom and our hearts softened into sorrow and contrition by His love. So, regular confession is the first step towards Christ’s forgiveness of our sins. If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins…. (1 John. i. 9)
Second, when we practice penance habitually, Christ will then cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 St. John i. 9) In this process we learn that as often as we repent, the Lord forgives. For the merciful goodness of the LORD endureth for ever and ever upon them that fear Him. (Ps. ciii. 17) What should overawe and stupefy us as we are renewed in the spirit of [our]mind[s], as weput on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness (Eph. iv. 23, 24), is that God’s forgiveness is nothing short of a superabundant excess of His love and mercy for us. We shall realize that, as Simon Tugwell writes, We cannot let the truth of God’s being penetrate our own sin, so that we may be forgiven, if at the same time we are trying to exclude one essential aspect of that truth [in failing to forgive any other man]. (Ibid, 91) God’s forgiveness of our sins in Jesus Christ is the miracle of Love that desires continuously to conquer allsin. If the forgiveness we receive takes root downward to bear fruit upward, through us it will be showered indiscriminately on all others. For only then will it have become the Love of our lives. What is easier to say “Thy sins be forgiven thee” or “Arise take up thy bed and walk? (St. Matthew ix. 4) And if indeed we do arise, we shall be lifted by that forgiveness that frees all men of their debts to us and liberates them to share with us God’s unending mercy.
THERE was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon;
and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not;
neither was their place found any more in heaven.
(Rev. xii. 7)
Today we celebrate our Patronal Feast. A Patronal Feast refers to the Patron Saint or Angel for whom certain churches, basilicas, or cathedrals are named. Our Patrons are St. Michael, who happens to be both a Saint and an Angel, and all the other Angels. St. Michael has the added distinction of being the Commander in Chief of the Angelic Host. So he and his company of Angels surround and defend us in this Church.
Of course, since the time of the Reformation Protestant-minded people have been made nervous by the Angels since they sense that their mediatorial vocation is frighteningly close to that of the Saints. Being defined by small portions of their Bibles only, they live in fear of Popish plots and thus inoculate themselves against the help that God intends should come from the Angels and Saints. They say that Jesus alone is neededwhen the truth of the matter is that Jesus has always been at work in the lives of Angels and Saints and longs to come alive in us too! We do well to remember that Christ invited the Angel Gabriel to pave the way for His conception and birth. And then at His Transfiguration, He called Saints Moses and Elijah down from Heaven to reveal a vision of man’s redemption. From what the Bible teaches us, Jesus is always at work in the lives of all who in Him have died to themselves and come alive to God the Father. In so far as His creatures are right with God the Father, they must share in His life and His meaning. And so we believe that there have ever been Angels and Men in whom Christ is alive so completely that they are with Him already in His Kingdom. Michael and the Good Angels have never parted from Him. And if Moses and Elijah were translated to Heaven, I dare say that the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph, the Apostles and the Faithful in all ages have already taken their rightful place in Christ’s reconciliation of time with eternity as members of His Mystical Body.
So let us contemplate the Angels. Angels are intellectual substances. The word angel comes to us from the Greekaggelos, and it means messenger, envoy, or one who is sent. They do not have bodies but are pure spirits. Angels, like everything else that God has created, are made good. Those Good Angels who figure most prominently in Scripture are Michael and Gabriel. Then there are hosts of anonymous angels who visit the Shepherds prior to Christ’s birth and celebrate with them after, who minister to Jesus after His temptations in the wilderness, are with Him in last days of His bitter agony, assist at the Resurrection, and then prepare the Apostles at His Ascension for Pentecost. Angels liberated both Peter and Paul on two separate occasions from prison. And in general, as Richard Hooker says, even now in us they behold themselves beneath themselves, see what we share, and hope that we might join them and resemble God. (E.P. i. iv)
But from Scripture, we know also that some of the angels rebelled against God and His goodness at the moment of their creation. Out of pride and then envy they treacherously embraced darkness. And so, as St. John tells us in this morning’s Epistle, There was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. (Rev. xii. 7-9) Most commentators say that St. John is speaking of the original warfare that erupted when the Angels of Light realized what some of their companions had done. Those who rebelled became the Angels of Darkness, imaged by St. John as the Dragon and his army of bad angels. St. John reminds us that the origins of sin and evil emerge from these rational, free-willing angelic creatures who chose to reject God. St. Augustine tells us that the origin of sin is found on the First Day of Creation. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: And God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. (Gen. i. 3,4) God had already made the heavens and earth, and then He made light. But this is not physical light that God created since He had not yet made the sun and the moon. So Augustine insists that this must be the spiritual light or the light that is the life of the angels that God has made. God did not create the darkness but divided the light from the darkness. Augustine tells us that the darkness must be an image for the bad angels’ willful rejection of the eternal Light of God that informs and defines all creation. So because the good angels live in the Light of God, they are called created light and their lives constitute the first spiritual Day. The bad angels are called the darkness and so are banished to the everlasting spiritual Night in alienation from God’s Light. (D.C.D. xi, xii)
So sin is a spiritual problem, and it originates with pure spirits or angels who reject God’s rule and governance. Sin is a rejection of God, borne out of envy and pride. St. John tells us that the bad angelsenvied God’s wisdom and love and resented His power. Not content with being derivative creatures whose illumination and enlightenment depended always on the Light of God’s truth, beauty, and goodness, the bad angels rather wanted to be God. Looking away from God, they looked to themselves, and in that moment became spiritual darkness. Spiritual self-absorption or narcissism is always and ever darkness because it refuses to submit to the Creator’s Light, which alone gives meaning and purpose to life. Thus the bad angels become a community of bad faith, ill will, and deception.
Michael and his army of Good Angels, full of all that God makes them to be, fought against the bad angels and banished them from Heaven. The Good Angels embrace God’s Light alone and cannot endure the presence of the malevolent ill will and darkness of Satan and his peers. Those angels whose future and destiny belong to God receive and return His Light and Love without ceasing. Because they are intellectual spirits, the reason and meaning of all creation are discerned and returned to God from them. In them, we find a pattern of perpetual obedience to God’s will in heaven that we should imitate on earth. They are moved and defined by God’s Word alone. When they embrace God’s Word, they are one with Jesus as He works redemption into fallen humanity. When the Word is made flesh in us, they offer to surround us with Heavenly protection, aid, and assistance.
Michael is the Chief of All the Angels, and his name Michael means he who is like God. The Greek Church refers to him as Arcistrategos, or the General Commanding Officer. Having cast Satan and his minions out of Heaven, Michael and his soldiers desire without ceasing to frustrate their power on earth. As Christ’s ministering spirits, they are His true friends, and so their role and vocation are to visit us with the protection and care that they receive from Jesus. The Pseudo-Dionysius, a 6th Century Syrian monk, tells us that Angels have three functions. They carry purification, illumination, and unification to us. (Hier. Coel. ix. 2, op. cit. Danielou; The Angels and Their Mission) What they long for us to find in Jesus is the purification of our souls, the illumination of our minds, and unbreakable unification with our Heavenly Father. So they encourage our spiritual cleansing, education, and unity with God. They intend to surround and defend us so that Christ may work His redemption into us. They come at Christ’s bidding. Moved by the Father’s Word, and driven by the Holy Spirit, they desire to stir us into that pattern which forever longs for God, loves Him, and serves Him in uninterrupted ecstatic adoration.
Today as we honor and venerate St. Michael and All Angels, with them we know that as there was war in heaven, until the end times there will be war on earth. Nothing that is good and true can be won or retained without a struggle. The good must always hold their heritage at the price of ceaseless vigilance. He who would attain and keep truth and prove himself faithful to it must be prepared to engage in constant battle…Every attempt to make earth more in harmony with heaven will be challenged. (The Christian Year in the Church Times, p. 274) Michael and his Angels are fighting constantly so that the victory of God’s Light over darkness in Heaven and on earth in Jesus Christ might be acknowledged and embraced. Their battle extends from God’s Heavenly throne to His earthly footstool. Their vocation or calling is to lift us up and into the realm of spiritual unity with God. They do not selfishly bask in the fruits of their own accomplishments. Their labor is God’s work and it will endure as long as time remains for the salvation of souls before the Second Coming.
William Blake reminds us that, It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God only. And this is that holiness which alone will dispel and scatter all manner of darkness, making us into the children of the Light. (1 Thes. v. 5) In closing let us hear the awe-struck gratitude of the poet at the passionate ministry of angels for us:
And is there care in Heaven? And is there love
In Heavenly spirits to these creatures base,
That may compassion of their evils move?
There is: else much more wretched were the case
Of men than beasts: but O the exceeding Grace
Of Highest God! That loves His creatures so,
And all His works with mercy doth embrace,
That blessed angels He sends to and fro,
To serve to wicked men, to serve his wicked foe!
How oft do they their silver bowers leave,
To come to succor us that succour want!
How oft do they with golden pinions cleave
The flitting skyes like flying pursuivant,
Against foul fiends to aid us militant!
They for us fight, they watch, and dewly ward,
And their bright squadrons round about us plant;
And all for love, and nothing for reward;
O why should Heavenly God to men have such regard!
(Fairie Queene: ii, vii, 8)
Jesus did not come to explain away suffering, or to remove it. He came to fill it with His presence. Paul Claudel
Trinity tide is full of examples taken from Scripture that lead the faithful pilgrim into the experience of the Real Presence of God. And I am not speaking of somehow feeling God in the way that we feel the cold or heat, feel the pressure of another body against our own, or feel anything sensibly or tangibly. I am speaking of a kind of spiritual feeling, whose power and strength assure the mind, fortify conviction, and infuse man’s inner being with the stable and unchanging determination of God’s power. I am talking about an inward and spiritual perception and sensation of God’s presence that halts and governs the uncertain and changing here and now of earthly existence, only to carry it progressively into the permanent realm of truth, beauty, and goodness. More specifically in relation to today’s Lections, I am trying to describe the belief that opens itself up to the power of God’s love in Jesus’ suffering and death. This is the kind of faith that finds His suffering and death to be the model and pattern for the man who would find everlasting life.
So let us travel back in time, and find ourselves with Jesus in about the year 30 A.D.. We find ourselves in the city of Nain. Nain is a desolate place emptied of any civil society. Dean Stanley tells us that on a rugged and barren ridge, in an isolated place, sits the ruined village of Endor or Nain. No convent, no tradition marks the spot. (Trench: Miracles) The place is about eight miles south of Nazareth and has a population of about 1,600 Muslims, who descend from those who defeated and expelled the last of the Latin Christians who dwelt in that place. A Franciscan Church, renovated in the 19th century, sits silently waiting for the great Christian revival that is brewing even now. Both the village and its church are rooted and grounded in a kind of death that awaits Resurrection from without. Now when Jesus came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her. (St. Luke vii. 12) We read that a widow woman’s tears have been brought on by the recent death of her only son. Her neighbors are silent, fearing, no doubt, that their words would only stand to add to her pain. Her agony is acute because her nearest and dearest both are gone. Surely she felt incomprehension as God’s allowed for the death of her only son to follow that of his father. But she says nothing. Loss is loss and grief must be allowed to run their course. For now there seems to be no consolation, relief, or hope. With the psalmist this morning, she cries inwardly and spiritually, the sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. (Psalm cxvi. 3)
It is into this pain and agony of soul that Christ comes. And when the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not. And He came and touched the bier: and they that bare him stood still. And He said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. (St. Luke vii. 13-15) When Jesus approaches, all are still. He says with St. Paul this morning, I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. (Galatians vi. 11) Christ comes into this situation as one who will bear the sorrow and shoulder the relief. He will offer a kind of compassion that neither she nor the mourners have ever experienced. His words will be few but their power swift and efficacious. His pity will upturn death and make new life. God’s Word, through Whom all things are made, acts upon the inner, spiritual man. The body dies, but the soul lives on and must be awakened. God is ever with the soul and is now about to command its reanimation of the decaying corpse. The Word is spoken and the same Love that gave the Mother joy when her man-child was born into the world now vanquishes death in the wake of new life. The only words that emerge out of this situation come from the resuscitated youth. With the psalmist he sings, The Lord preserveth the simple: I was brought low, and he helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul; for the LORD hath dealt bountifully with thee. For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living. I believed, therefore have I spoken…(Psalm cxvi 6-10) The young man speaks, and mirrors the thoughts of his mother’s heart. He has new life; so too does she. The Word made Flesh has given him words -words of new life, words emerging from spiritual and physical rejuvenation, words that will commence the spiritual awakening of the young man for a higher life, through which, indeed, alone the joy of the mother could become true and abiding (Trench, Miracles) as Archbishop Trench remarks. Only then do the others respond. And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people. (St. Luke vii. 16)
The point of this morning’s Gospel runs far deeper than the surface-level details of an historical event. Historical experiences must find their respective meaning in the truth that the Spirit brings. Think about the widow of Nain. She is confronted with a spiritual problem; on the one hand she can mourn, despair, and give up on life because the last and final source of her comfort, peace, and joy has been removed. With the cause of her life’s joy now gone, she is left with little but her own death. Perhaps she has forgotten the power of God in human life. Perhaps nothing short of a dramatic surge of this power in her son’s resuscitation would pry her out of the jaws of his death, a death that even now is threatening to fill her soul with despair. One thing is clear, Jesus will use today’s miracle to draw both her and us away from earthly sorrow and despair so that we might learn to lean solely on His power of salvation and deliverance.
God in Jesus Christ is all-powerful. Yet, this power is not to be sought out chiefly in the remedy for human illness or the denial of death. Sometimes God surprises us as He has in this morning’s Gospel Miracle. We do well to remember that the Widow of Nain did not approach Jesus. Jesus sought her out. He, the Lord of Life, encountered a train of earthly death and reversed its course. He gives the woman and her son another chance to follow Him into a far more profound kind of death that leads to true life. He does this at all times throughout history. Doctors often come up with cures for earthly disease. Wouldn’t it be a miracle if more men and women used the extended time in the healing of their bodies for the salvation of their souls?
Earthly suffering and death will visit us all. Sometimes it happens sooner and sometimes later. When it happens sooner, we call it an untimely tragedy. When it happens later, these days at any rate, we tend to sue. Evidently, death isn’t supposed to happen. The adolescent age we inhabit kicks and screams in vain at its inevitability. Not content to twist and contort the natural life into perverse and profane uses for which it was never intended, our age seems bent madly on finding a way to have it last forever. But since they cannot eliminate death, they pretend, again in vain, that we all ought to be ushered into a comfortable kind of nirvana.
Of course the interesting thing about death is that we are powerless over it. No matter how hard we try, in the end, we cannot resist it. The best we can do is to try to delay its immanent arrival. But to what use? Today’s Gospel leads us into a far more difficult truth. Christ is Lord of life and death. And if this is the case, hadn’t we better start getting right with Him? He who called the son of the Widow of Nain out of death is calling us out of death here and now. Of course He calls us out of spiritual death. If we are alive to the world, the flesh, and the devil, in the eyes of God we are as good as dead already. This means that we have not, as yet, arranged to get ourselves right with God. Oh, you protest, but I am a good person. Indeed. I can assure you that Hell is full of good and respectable people. Yes, that’s right, good and respectable earthly citizens of the City of Man go to Hell because they have never needed Heaven’s God or shared His Goodness.
So we ought to ask ourselves this day if we are spiritually alive or dead. Of course, I don’t mean if we are physically alive. You all are breathing even if you’re not up to much more. But are we spiritually alive or spiritually dead? Maybe we are spiritually alive on Sunday morning for all or part of the service. Maybe we are spiritually dead when it comes time for giving to God first both prayerfully and materially. To be spiritually alive we must allow Christ to fill our suffering with His presence. Suffering hurts. Maybe we need to hurt some before His death kicks into our lives. Maybe we need to hurt truly and spiritually in order to pass on His Resurrection to others.
Again, today St. Paul says this to the Church at Ephesus: Faint not at my tribulation for you, which is your glory. (Eph. iii. 13) St. Paul is suffering his own death so that Christ may live in Him and so that he might share the Lord’s life with others.Oswald Chambers says this about our spiritual suffering and death.
No one experiences complete sanctification without going through a “white funeral” — the burial of the old life. If there has never been this crucial moment of change through death, sanctification will never be more than an elusive dream. There must be a “white funeral,” a death with only one resurrection— a resurrection into the life of Jesus Christ. (My Utmost…Jan. 15)
Have you been to your own white funeral yet? Let us suffer it to come to pass. Let us allow Him to fill [our suffering] with His presence. If we allow it, His presence willcleanse and defend us…keep [us] in safety…and preserve [us] evermore by that help and goodness that will ensure our salvation.
Is Jesus the living Son of God, the Saviour, the Deliverer, the Mediator, the Advocate,
the Judge for you? Is He is the Logos of God in your heart and soul? If He is, then He is the reason, truth, goodness, and beauty that animates your life. If He is, then He is the ruling and governing principle of your whole existence. He then indwells your heart by His Grace and through the Holy Spirit. He then moves and defines you. He enables you to die to sin and come alive to righteousness.
The problem with most Christians today is that they treat Jesus as a dead man only to be related to as past history. Most Christians are practical atheists. This is why they are able with ease to say -mostly about moral matters, “that doesn’t bother me.” Everything that is going on in our world around us should bother us. 95% of it is filth, pollution, perversion, and corruption. 95% of it is sin, plain and simple. 95% of is moved and defined by the fear of offending sinners. Sinners need to be offended. We need to be offended. We are all sinners! Our God is offensive. He loves us enough to tell us, in Jesus, that what we are doing is not right but wrong and not good but evil! He loves us enough to tell us that if we do not shape up we shall be shipped off to Hell, forever!
If you are a Sacramental Christian -as all Christians must be, the next time you go to the Altar Rail, when you partake of bread and wine, believe that it becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus the Saviour. Believe that He enters into you to purge you of your sin and to infuse His righteousness into your body, soul, and spirit. Believe and allow Him to have His way with you. Believe and remember what He has done for you in dying on the Cross. Believe and remember that He has risen and is ascended and still wants you from His seat of Glory in Heaven. Remember and be moved by the Indwelling Saviour of the World. Be moved and share Him from your heart to the heart of another.
Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.
(St. John i. 47)
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Bartholomew. St. Bartholomew is mentioned in the Gospelsof Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but only as coupled with Philip in the list of the twelve Apostles. He is not mentioned in the Gospel according to St. Johnas Bartholomew, but is there named Nathaniel – this probably being his second name, where he is also found with Philip. And if our Bartholomewis indeed the same man as Nathaniel, then it is from St. John that we learn most about him.
St. John tells us that Philip, who came from Bethsaida in Galilee, the hometown of Peter and Andrew, was found by Jesus, who said unto him, Follow me. (Ibid, 43) Next we read thatPhilip findeth Nathaniel, and saith unto him, We have found Him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. Philip claims that he has found the Messiah, prophesied by the Jewish Moses and the Prophets, Jesus of Nazareth, but that he isthe son of Joseph. If Saint Bartholomew is Nathaniel, we can infer that with Philip he too was from Bethsaida of Galilee.But as a devout Jew, Nathaniel Bartholomew would have known from the Prophet Micah that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem of Judah. (Micah v. 2) That the Christ should come from Nazareth of Galilee would have struck him as unlikely. Furthermore, because the Galilee of his own day was so notorious for its evil and unrighteous ways, Nathaniel Bartholomew would have doubted that Nazareth should have sired the promised Saviour. Galilee, as Archbishop Trench reminds us, had by this time been thoroughly Hellenized or acclimated to the ways of the Greeks. We know this from the fact that two of these first Apostles bore Greek names: Philip and Andrew. Bartholomew, then, would have had sufficient reason to doubt that Philip had found the Messiah. Thus he is cautious in the face of a seemingly unfulfilled historical prophecy, and is equally guarded against the strangeness of Messiah’s dwelling place. So Nathaniel Bartholomew’s asks Philip,Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? (St. John i. 45, 46)His question seems fair enough. He hesitates in face of his friend’s euphoric optimism. Prior to the calling of Philip, Jesus had asked Andrew and his companion, What seek ye? (St. John i. 38) Their answer was strange. They said, Where are you abiding? (Idem) Jesus said, Come and see. (Ibid, 39) Jesus intends for Philip and Bartholomew to do the same.
Before this, we read of Philip’s response to Nathaniel Bartholomew’s suspicious question. He doesn’t provide his own answer but repeats Jesus’ answer to the other disciples’ question about where He was abiding. So he says to Nathaniel Bartholomew,Come and see. (Ibid, 46) Philip appears to be mesmerized by Jesus’ words, Come and see. The mystical Personality of Jesus was enough to arrest and consume Philip. Perplexities might still remain, but Philip would be content to adjourn them to a later day, which faith must always do! (Studies in the Gospels: R.C. Trench, p. 73)
But Philip’s faith seems sufficiently intriguing to stir the guileless curiosity of Nathaniel Bartholomew. He will pursue and test Philip’s Come and see. Next we read that, Jesus saw Nathaniel coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! (Ibid, 47) Jesus appears to know already that Nathaniel Bartholomew is no fool and will not be won over easily. He pays him the highest compliment in calling Bartholomew a true Israelitewithout guile. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that guile is the execution of craftiness or the attempt to deceive using words. (S.T., lv. 4)Nathaniel Bartholomew is one whose words reflect only his honest thoughts. He is conscientious and earnest in his search for the truth. He knows that he does not know Jesus and thus with determined curiosity he will examine Jesus and His words. Nathaniel saith unto Jesus, Whence knowest thou me? (Ibid, 48) He provokes Jesus to answer his inquisition.How is it that you know me? Prove it. Jesus still intends that he should Come and see, but since Nathaniel Bartholomew is a man who never attempts to deny or conceal the truth of his own ignorance, Jesus will provide him with the facts that the guileless man is after. Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called…when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. (Ibid, 48) We have no knowledge of what Nathaniel was doing under the fig tree. Most commentators tells us that Nathaniel was more likely than not fighting to overcome some great temptation, struggling earnestly with some pestiferous demon, or longing passionately to be healed by God’s merciful kindness. But suffice it to say, that Nathaniel now understood that Jesus knew full well just what he was doing, that Philip had called him forth from it, and that He had heard even Nathaniel’s skeptical response. (Trench, p. 76)So Nathaniel Bartholomew comes to see that Jesus knew where he wasandwhat was in him. (St. John ii. 25)Nathaniel answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. (Ibid, 49)
The kind of virtue that we find in Nathaniel Bartholomew is uncommon indeed. When Jesus compliments him for being without guile, we happen upon a rare instance of Jesus’ recognition of a virtue that most men lack. Yet, this virtue that we find in Nathaniel is so essential to the Christian pilgrim in so many ways. First, we find in him that earnest disposition that seeks first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Second, because he is moved by candid self-honesty in relation to God, he is emptied of any pretension, deceit, cunning, hypocrisy, and fraud. Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, and hath not sat in the seat of the scornful. (Ps. i. 1) Because his sins so need God’s forgiveness, this man without guile does not frequent the haunts of sinners. He is conscious enough of his own weaknesses not to tempt or provoke God to wrath. Third, this man without guile seeks to delight in the Law of the Lord, and in His Law will he exercise himself day and night. (Ibid, 2) The man without guile does not deceive himself nor does he deceive his neighbor, for the chief care and concern in life is to fear the Lord, obey His Law, and do His will. A guileless nature is…the kindly soil in which all excellent graces will flourish, but does not do away with the necessity of the divine seed, out of which alone they can spring. (Trench, p. 74)
Today we learn some basic lessons about Christian spiritual life from the Apostle Nathaniel Bartholomew. Guile or craftiness is a tricky and deceptive vice indeed, full of all hypocrisy and fraud. Through it men deceive others and lure them into the webs of their own devices, desires, and designs. It is a form of control that through falsehood and wrong attempts to manipulate the truth to serve selfish ends. We might find it expressed most notoriously in the life of Judas Iscariot. There we see that because Jesus did not end up fulfilling his earthly expectations, Judas would betray his Master. But it is found subtly also when any one of us attempts to manipulate others to serve our own selfish passions. Through it we threaten or intimidate our fellows when we claim a majority support for our minority opinion. Through guile or craftiness welie and falsify, conceal and hide, and then dismantle and destroy the integrity of other men. Guile even cleverly confesses its sins, draws others into its pretended sorrow, and enlists sympathy for persistent self-pity and unrestrained self-indulgent wallowing. Guile pretends to love another person whilst all the while indulging its own purely selfish narcissism. Guile pretends to love God but loves only its own sorry self.A lying tongue hateth those that areafflicted by it; and a flattering mouth worketh ruin. (Prov. xxvi. 28)
In Nathaniel Bartholomew, Jesus finds no traces of this crafty deceit and shameless guile. If Nathaniel Bartholomew has a fault, it might be that he desires too much knowledge where faith alone is needed. At the close of their first meeting Jesus says to his new friend: Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? Thou shalt see greater things than these….Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man. (Ibid, 50, 51) In other words, Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (St. John xx. 29) This vision is reserved for those who without guile move beyond human knowledge to faith that gives birth to salvation. In answer to, Rabbi where dwellest Thou? (Ibid, 38) Jesus says, Come and see. (Ibid, 39)
With what we know of St. Nathaniel Bartholomew, we can surmise and conclude that whereJesus was therehe was also. In the end, where he was always, was in that spiritual place that could declare with St. Paul, I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. (Gal. ii. 20) He and the Apostles who learned to live without guilewerescattered about the world shining as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, keeping themselves unspotted from the world, where Jesus was conquering men’s hearts with His love and affection. So, in the end, they lived by Christ’s vision of them because they were better pleased to do their duty than to hear about it, not seeking glory from men but the honor that comes from God alone, counting themselves worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. (Ibid, 161)They were determined to dwell in that place where Christ was –wherea man never deceives himself or others. They were foreverwherethe penetrating light of Christ’s knowledge shows a man where he isand then gives him the vision of who he can become.
Can any good thing come out of Nazareth, Nathaniel asks?Jesus says, Come and see. If we do, with Nathaniel we shall believe the Word of God made flesh, hear Him, receive Him, and be so transformed by Him that we shall carry that Good thing that has come out of Nazareth from our hearts out and into the world.
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than
we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve…
(Collect Trinity XII)
The Collect for the Twelfth Sunday afterTrinity expresses a truth that although commonly spoken is rarely remembered.And the truth is that it is in God’s nature to listen and respond to man’s needs always, and that our natures are more often than not lazy and slothful in the supplication of those needs. God hears in order to give, and what He gives is more than either we desire or deserve. The weakness of desire is entirely on our side.In desiring Him more, we shall begin to receive the pure gift of His mercy, and so receiveHis superabundant desire for us.
The deaf and dumb man described in today's Gospel is an image of that spiritual condition that neither desires nor deserves what God longs to give. The man can neither hear nor speak. Prior to the portion of the Gospel that we have read this morning, we meet a Syrophoenician woman who had no problem speaking up and begging Jesus to heal her daughter, who had an unclean spirit (St. Mark vii. 25). She may not have felt that she deserved anything, but that didn’t stop her from desiring morsels or fragments of that healing power that she knew could cure her demonized child. She was not a Jew but a Gentile pagan suppliant who provoked Jesus to remind her that [God’s] children should first be filled; for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs. (Ibid, 27) Jesus provoked her because He longed to elicit from her an articulation of her inmost desire. She said, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. (Ibid, 28) Jesus said that because the Syrophoenician woman’s faith desired the morsels and fragments of holiness that alone could expel the devil from her tormented daughter. Thus, a Paganess’ faith obtained her desire for what she knew and confessed she did not deserve. Her desire led her to seek out, find, and know God in a way that was hidden from her Jewish neighbors. Desire is love, and love led the Syrophenician woman to the light, which is the knowledge of God. God intends that our desire should lead us to seek out and find goodness and truth.
This morning, we encounter a Jewish man who cannot so much as express his desire, let alone meditate upon what he might or might not have deserved. His friends must express a desire that the deaf and dumb cannot communicate. We read: And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him.(Ibid, 32) Jesus is back in the land of the religious Pharisees, the land of His own Chosen People, and in the environment of his own pious kin folk. What is remarkable is thathere we find a man who is deaf and dumb. What ensues is not a conversation at all. Jesus had spoken to the Syrophoenician woman because she spoke to him. But here we find only silence because the man is deaf and mute. Jesus’ response is also silent. He will pray to His Father to obtain the Divine Power. So, we read: And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. (Ibid, 33, 34)Pseudo-Chrysostom tells us that, Because of the sin of Adam, human nature had suffered much and had been wounded in its senses and in its members. But Christ coming into the world revealed to us, in Himself, the perfection of human nature; and for this reason he opened the ears with His fingers, and gave speech by the moisture of his tongue. (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, iv. 2) Judaism seems now to be symbolized by an inability to hear and to speak. The Jews knows of man’s refusal to hear and obey God’s Commandment in the Garden of Eden. Through His human nature, Jesus will identify himself with the fallen condition that ensued. Having cured the man of his physical handicaps in a primitive way, He can now call the man back into the pursuit of his spiritual good. The body’s relation to sound has been introduced to this man for the very first time. Now the man can be led to the healing of his soul. And so [Jesus]looks up to Heaven to teach us that is from there that the dumb must seek speech, the deaf hearing, and all who suffer healing. He [sighed or] groaned, not because he needed to seek with groaning anything from the Father…but that he might give us an example of groaning, when we must call upon the assistance of the heavenly mercy, in our own or our neighbours miseries (Ibid, 2) as the Venerable Bede teaches us. Jesus sighs or groans and identifies with the deaf and mutant man. He sighs and groans with passion for the power that transcends word.Jesus sighs or groansbecause He desires the Father’s healing more than we can imagine and He longs to give to us so [much] more than we either desire or deserve. (Collect) And so we read next that, And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain.(St. Mark vii. 35) Jesus speaks to His Father, His Father responds, and the healing flows through Jesus into the man.
Now the miracle concludes with what we read next: And he charged them that they should tell no man….(Ibid, 36, 37) Jesus’ ministry is neither essentially nor predominantly about physical healings. The true healing that Jesus brings to mankind is the healing of desire, of the soul and spirit, or the transformation and conversion of the inward man as the soul begins to seek out more than either we desire or deserve.(Collect) Desire leads to faith, and faith is the knowledge of God. And so the real miracle in this morning’s Gospel that Jesus intends to bring about is the birth of faith in the human soul. This is why he charges both the miraculously cured man and the eye-witnesses to tell no man. Because true healing is inward and invisible, slow and progressive, it calls for neither boasting nor bragging. The true miracle is the inward desire that begins as to long for one kind of healing and yet then becomes faith in one of far greater importance. And so in light of today’s miracle, Jesus intends that the desire He has ignited should quietly, humbly, reverently, and even slowly follow Him into the deeper truth that He will reveal. So Jesus teaches us not to expect in our spiritual lives the kind of instantaneous change that cured the deaf and dumb man. There is much to confess, much to shed, much to forgive and more to forget. We must be healed of our sins through faith in His Grace. Few men have radical and abrupt conversions. Rather, the miracle of conversion is a time-tried and habit forming process that may take as long as a lifetime before it is perfected.
Our Collect for today reveals to us the kind of miracle we are after. In it we pray, Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. (Collect)Within our souls we are conscious of past sins; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, and the burden of them is intolerable. (General Confession: HC Service, BCP 1928) When we are given spiritual ears with which to hear the truth of ourselves, we begin to become conscious of the horror and shame of the past lives we have lived. Our consciences are afraid and seared, as they quiver and tremble before the presence of God. And so we realize, in the presence of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, that we need those good things which we are not worthy to ask. (Collect) We do not deserve to hear, and yet God begins to open our ears. We are ashamed to speak, and yet He slowly but surely unloosens our tongues so that we might articulate and describe our condition. And so we can begin to pray, Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy.We are made worthy through merits and mediation of Jesus Christ (Collect) alone. The new miracle will take time to perfect. So we must, without any fanfare, bragging, or boasting, patiently endure the slow healing of our desire and faith that leads to salvation. With St. Paul, we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body… [For] we hope for [what] we [do not yet]see…[and so] we with patience wait for it. (Romans viii. 23)
So today, my friends, we pray for a miracle. What is the miracle? First, with St. Paul, the consciousness that, We are not sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; [for] our sufficiency [comes] from God. (2 Cor. iii. 4) Second, that our sufficiency is the result of God’s hard work, His enduring labor, His desire enflaming and expanding our desire, His truth broadening and deepening our faith, and His establishing and securing us more and more in His knowledge and love through Jesus Christ our Lord. The journey will be long and He never promised that it would be easy. But if we desire and seek, believe and follow, our ears will be opened and our mouths unstopped as we begin to sing the joyful song of salvation. In closing, let us pray with that great old Swedish Lutheran Bishop Bo Giertz who expresses with simplicity and honesty that spiritual desire and the faith that we seek.
I want to open my heart and my entire self for thee like this, Lord Jesus. Only thou canst help me to do that. Say thy powerful ‘Ephphatha’ to my soul. Command my heart to open up even in its inmost hiding places to receive thee and thy glory. Command my tongue to be untied so that I may praise thee and speak kind words to others, words that carry warmth, and healing, and blessing with them. Command my complete essence to open up so that I can receive for nothing and give for nothing, richly and lavishly, as thou wouldest want me to do. (To Live with Christ, p.552)
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that
exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
(St. Luke xviii. 14)
Trinity-tide invites us on to the road that leads to salvation for those who embrace God’s power as He reveals it chiefly in shewing mercy and pity upon those who running the way of His Commandments hope to obtain His gracious promises and to be made partakers of His heavenly treasure. (Collect Trinity XI)No human being is denied this offer of redemption and reconciliation with Almighty God, the Father of lights, the Creator and Mover of all things. Every human being can come to see and know either the way that leads to death and destruction or the way that leads to life and reconciliation. The road or way that a man takes is, of course, his spiritual path. His spiritual path is determined by the character and nature of his prayer life. In this morning’s Gospel Parableour Lord illustrates two kinds of prayer life and where each of them leads. Perhaps our careful study of both will move us to embrace the one and eschew the other with more determined earnestness.
Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. (St. Luke xviii. 10) The first man who went up to praywas a Pharisee, a religious leader of the Jewish Church in his day and an expert in how the Jewish Law brought man closer to God. The other man who went up to pray was a Publican – also a Jew, but one who was despised by his own people as a traitor because he collected taxes for the heathen Roman overlords. So, on the face of it, we should expect to find the Phariseepraying in a way that surrenders to God in habitual humble dependence. From the Publicanwe might anticipate some superficial, haphazard, uncommon, and cursory prayer.
So we read that The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus.... (Ibid, 11; Archbishop Trench’s translation) Even before our ears are opened to the content of the Pharisee’s prayer, we are a bit surprised. We learn that he has isolated and cordoned himself off from all others. Putting a distance between himself and all unclean worshipers, (Parables, p. 381) he does not seek an inconspicuous and anonymous place to pour out his sin-sick heart before God. Rather, he intends to be conspicuously positioned to parade his piety before others. Jesus tells us what the Pharisee will broadcast to his audience. God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. (Ibid, 11) Speakingthus with himself,the Pharisee thanks God that he is unlike all other men. He is unique, special, and precious. By way of judgment, he assumes that all other men are notorious sinners or maybe even as wicked as thePublican whom he notices out of the corner of his eye. So, first he conflates sin with sinners. For while he is surely right to thank God for deliverance from vice and into virtue, he is not right to contrast himself withor elevate himself aboveother men. He has started off on the wrong foot altogether by thanking God for a goodness that is comparative. He is better because others are worse. The publican, who is not far from him, is a useful prop in the dramatic presentation of himself to God. He insists that he is so very, very good because other men are so very, very bad! His sin is first found, then, in a self-conscious righteousnessthat is defined wholly in comparison to his neighbors.
Second, to enhance his sinful spiritual superiority, he tells us who he is and what he does: I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. (Ibid, 12) He is at least as good as he is because what he doesis not as bad as what other men do. So, it would seem, he needs to be no better. To be religious,as Cardinal Newman points out, was for him to keep peace towards others, to take his share in the burdens of the poor, to abstain from gross vice, and to set a good example. His alms and fastings were done not in penance, but because the world asked for them; penance would have implied consciousness of sin; whereas it was only the Publicans, and such as they, who had anything to be forgiven. (10th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856) He thanks God for his well-behaved, decorous, consistent, and respectable life. (Ibid) He is grateful to God for himself and crowns his pride and arrogance in gratitude for being spared the condition of this [pitiful] Publican. (Ibid, 11)In the end, he has only condescending contempt for one whose humble repentance should have stirred in him the need for the same.
So, over there, we find the Publican, standing, afar off, [who] would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote his breast, saying,God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid, 13) Here we come upon a man who, alienated and shunned by his own people for his compromised loyalty and divided fidelity, is standing afar off. (Ibid)This self-conscious sinner’s own sin prevents him from drawing nearer to the wall of prayer since he believes that this space is reserved for the holy men of God. He must stand at a distance, taking the lowest seat, painfully aware that he is not worthy even of this station. His poverty of spirit renders him fearful of moving closer to the Wall of Prayer before he has obtained remission of his sins. He reminds us of Mephibosheth, the disabled son of Jonathan, who responds to King David’s mercy with the words of the unworthy: What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am? (2 Sam. 8) He beats his breast, revealing how he cannot endure the distance he has traveled away from his Maker. With neither self-pity nor self-excuse, quietly and conscientiously, he prays, God be merciful to me a sinner. (Ibid) This man knows who he is and what he has become in relation to God. He knows, too, that the all-seeing God knows the secrets of [his] heart. (Ps. xliv. 21) And so, as St. Theophylact has written, he comes as close as he is able to the table of God’s mercy, knowing that he [could] not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven (Ibid, 13), regarding them as unworthy of the celestial vision: because they had preferred to look upon and seek out only earthly riches. (Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 358) He cannot look up to God, for he is a sinner. He cannot look around at others, for they are far better than he.
Unlike the Pharisee, who has no sins to confess, the Publicanrepents before the all-seeing God. His heart is convicted and he repents him of his sins. God’s sees into his heart and elicits the truth. Unlike the Pharisee he is not his own teacher,as Cardinal Newman writes, pacing round and round in the small circle of his own thoughts and judgments, careless to know what God says to him, fearless of being condemned by Him, standing approved in his own sight. (Ibid) Rather he has finally heard the Lord speaking to him: Be still and know that I am God.(Psalm 46.10) He is conscious of God’s omniscience. He knows himself to be spiritually last and least, and that God alone can overcome his spiritual wretchedness with the power of His pity and mercy. (Idem)And so God calls him up and into regeneration. He seeks pardon for wrong done, and power to do better. And thus he beats his breast to drive out the presence of darkness within that the power of God’s all-liberating light may suffuse his soul.
The Publican in his prayer, veiled and concealed to the Phariseein his pride, illustrates for us that spiritual character that must inform and define our relation to God. The Publican does not postpone the inevitable encounter with God. While there is still time, he returns to the Lord. He knows that the powerthat he needs mostis chiefly declared in [God’s] pity and mercy. He can identify with all men, because created natures, high and low, are all on a level and one in the sight and comparison of the Creator, and so all of them have one speech, and one only, whether it be the thief on the cross, Magdalen at the feast, of St. Paul before martyrdom. One and all have nothing but what comes from Him, and are as nothing before Him, who is all in all. (Newman, Ibid) The Publican’s prayer is everyman’s prayer. From his heart, we find the truth that must always travel from our lips back to God.
Dear friends, today let us look into our hearts and see if in them we find any traces or habits of being self-consciously righteous. Do we rest contented in being freed from certain sins and thus so unlike other notorious livers –extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, or publicans?Do we think that we are in possession of enough righteousness because we pay our tithes, attend the Church’s services, do this and do that, give enough of this and certainly almost too much of that? Do we settle for a form of holiness and righteousness which we think sufficient for sure and certain salvation? Have we stopped growing spiritually because we think that whatwe have, is our very own prized-possession that we have earned and are entitled to keep? Father Simon Tugwell reminds us that this all adds up to a complacency that is found when a man is pleased with himself. (Beatitudes: Darton, Longman & Todd, p. 3)My brothers and sisters, today let us admit and confess that God alone is our help and our salvation. He is like no other; He reproveth, and nurtureth, and teacheth and bringeth again, as a Shepherd his flock. He hath mercy on them that receive discipline, and that diligently seek after His judgments. (Ecclus. xviii. 13, 14) What we should perceive most is that undeserved and unmeritedpity and mercy that longs forever to change us, make us new, sanctify, and perfect us. Perfection for the Christian means the forever striving ahead, and not any conviction of achievement. (Tugwell, p. 5) Let us remember that we are all equally [sinful] and thus equally privileged but unentitled beggars before the door of God’s mercy. (Idem) So, with the Publican today let us have the honesty and courage to plead and to pray, God be merciful to me a sinner. Amen.
In His outward appearance He was like us; for in His boundless
Love He took it upon Himself to become a creature, yet without
Changing (his Divinity), and He became the Image, Type, and Symbol
Of Himself: He has revealed Himself symbolically out of His inner being;
Through Himself who is visible, He has drawn the whole creation
To Himself who is invisible and totally hidden.
(P.G. 91, St. Maximus Confessor)
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration. The word comes to us from the Latin derivative transfigurare and it means to change form, appearance, shape, or nature. The Greek variant is metamorphosisand it means the same. Ovid uses it when he describes the history of cyclical world transformations from the dawn of time to the deification of Julius Caesar. St. Matthew records the transfiguration of Christ before James, John, and Peter in the 17th Chapter of his Gospel. St. Luke, describing the same event, tells us that the appearance of Jesus was altered and his clothes became dazzling white. (St. Luke ix. 28) The point is that before His Resurrection from the Dead, Jesus Christ temporarily underwent a profound metamorphosis in and through which eternity and time intersected in His Sacred Person to reveal a vision of the life that was to come.
In the Church’s history little is made of this great feast. Theologians have remained silent about it and poets have virtually ignored it. It seems to be more popular in the Greek East than in the Latin West. Titian, the 16th-century Venetian painter, painted a version of it for the silver high altar of the Church of San Salvatore or San Salvador in Venice. He depicts the Transfiguration in a whirlwind of motion, power, intensity, and passion. The upper section of the painting depicts the heavenly realm. Christ stands at the center as the centrifugal point of unity and meaning. His left foot moves forward as if out of Heaven with His right foot ahead and grounded on earth. With His left hand, He reaches up to carry down the truth of the Father and with His right hand, He releases it like seed on the earth. All movement emanates from Him. To Christ’s right, Moses precedes him in time and space holding the Ten Commandments. To Christ’s left, Elijah’s face is partly concealed as he awaits news of his role for the ongoing creation. Beneath the three Saints Peter, James, and John are thrown down from the heavenly event and onto the earth that seems too cramped for them and us! Peter attempts to shield himself with his tunic. John has fallen back and nearly crushes us. James attempts to pray for mercy in the midst of the unknown. Christ stands out as the luminous Word made flesh. His immovable stability establishes His mission and what must transpire from Heaven to earth, from the spiritual to the natural, and from God to Man.
Prior to the account of the Transfiguration that we read today, we hear Jesus say, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? (St. Matthew xvii 24-26)Christ prophesies His own suffering and death and then goes on to insist that the life of a disciple will involve self-denial and sacrifice, the loss of one thing for the gain of another, and the hope of new life that can be won only after spiritual death. St. Luke’s Gospel punctuates today’s event with a further warning. Jesus says, Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when He comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (St. Luke ix 26)Not only will discipleship cost everything worldly; it will demand confidence, faith, and assurance in Christ’s saving life and power. From here on in the nature of Christ’s life in relation to all others will be a burden too heavy for anyone but Himself to bear. Christ’s presence here in Transfigured Form overturns, overpowers, and overcomes all human respectability. His own Apostles will be shaken, stirred, and pushed off the canvas of Transfiguration that intends to redeem the world through suffering and death.
So perhaps for this reason, He reveals Himself in an extraordinary and paranormal way to a few select friends. Some commentators have said that if Christ had left the earth in the moments following His Transfiguration, He would have saved Himself a lot of trouble. He would have returned to God as Moses and Elijah had done. For this is what they did at the end of the Transfiguration appearance. They disappeared but He remained. They return to the Father but He has much more work to do. Christ’s Transfiguration heralds and trumpets the deep truth of His unfolding mission. Here we find the beginning of the journey up to Jerusalem. It begins in Heaven. It will descend into suffering and death. It will rise up and return all men to God. Jesus knows that in time and space and before the eyes of all men, He who is the Logos of God, the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh, He who is made to reveal God’s will, plan, and purpose must derive His sure and certain strength, confidence, and trust from the Father. Only beginning here in Transfiguration do we find that courage and zeal and that wisdom and love that intend to carry out the plans of the Father, come what may. Jesus knows that suffering and death are the fruits of man’s misplaced desire and passion. From the wellspring of the Father’s Omnipotence the Son must suffer and die by the power of God.
Yet, we must behold the Transfigured Christ to prepare for what comes next. With Peter, and James, and John we must be overtaken, overpowered, overrun, and outdone. The powerful presence of the Transfigured Christ must pull us up and throw us out of the normal course of common life. Like Peter, James, and John we must be pushed to the periphery of the canvas of human life in order to make room for what Christ must do. Christ is our center and from that center that rules and governs the universe, we must observe the enactment of our redemption from Heaven to earth through the heart of Christ.
Jesus is transfigured before Peter, James, and John. This is not an end but another beginning. Jesus had gone up into the mountain to pray. And as He was praying, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with Him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His departure, which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Ibid, 29-31) Moses had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into exodus. Elijah had guided the people’s descendants out of slavery to sin into hope for deeper deliverance. Both now learned of the fulfillment of God’s promises that would be accomplished in Christ. Moses precedes and Elijah follows. History needs redemption. Law convicts and Prophecy hopes. The past and the future will be redeemed through the Word that Moses and Elijah heard. The past and the future will be redeemed through the Word made Flesh that Peter, James, and John have known. Peter hears the Father’s blessing. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. (Ibid, 35)
The redemption of human nature begins on the heights of Mount Tabor. From the heights of intimate union with God, Jesus will carry the glory of the Father into suffering death. Jesus must identify with man’s sickness to work in a cure. The glory of the Lord will neither flee nor abandon the horror of man’s illness. Christ’s whole personality is suffused with the celestial majesty; His dress shone with strange glory. (The Church Year, p. 264)This is the heavy garment of glory that Christ will put on in order to combat all manner of evil. He will combat His enemies largely with the silence of glory. He will suffer the effects of sin gladly with the mercy of glory. He will take into Himself the heaviness of corruption that moves men to hate God and His goodness. He will feel perfectly the state of sinners who have not come to see their sin. He will long for all men’s salvation in and through their rejection of it. The glory is what must remain powerfully present, alive, and radiant as He proceeds to fashion salvation. In and through the glory He will raise up a new and glorious body that will become the meeting place of man and God.
After Christ’s Transfiguration, when the three Apostles, in fear and terror prostrated on the ground, lifted up their eyes, they saw only Jesus. (God’s Human Face: Schonborn, p. 132) Him whom they had beheld in blinding splendor only moments earlier, communing with two heavenly friends, now they see alone. They see Jesus. Jesus’ human countenance, the face of Jesus of Nazareth, holds in itself the complete mystery of God. (Idem)Here is the balanced brilliance of God’s glory. The Transfigured Jesus must now temper and adjust His Person to minister to His friends. He must descend from the mount and lift up his fallen and bruised Apostles. And so we shall see glory in the One who bears their burden in sadness, pain, agony of soul and body, and death. We shall see glory also in unabated love and uninterrupted passion for all men’s salvation.
Through Himself who is visible, He has drawn the whole creationto Himself who is invisible and totally hidden. (Idem)Now, He is on Mount Tabor. Next, He is healing a paralytic boy. Soon, He will unjustly suffer and die. And through it all there is one constant --the glory of the Lord. This glory is seen only by those who will journey from the visible to the invisible. It can be seen in ecstatic mystical ascent. It can be endured in the crushing blow of being pushed to the outer edges of significance. It can be seen in suffering, pain, and death. The glory can always be perceived. God’s Glory enables us to retain what was learned in joy in use for mourning, and to bring to our hours of happiness a quickened perception of sorrow’s purifying discipline. The outward signs of transfiguration may pass, but its inner power remains with its fortifying grace to help us, when we pass through the waters of affliction and valley of the shadow of death, to regain something more than its glory in the power of endless life. (The Church Year, p. 266) Amen.
Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.
(1 Cor. x. 12)
Last week we spoke about the Divine Providence of God and how we ought to be intent upon ordering our lives with the Divine Wisdom. This week we remind ourselves that His Wisdom is dead to us if it is not always God’s way of making good out of a bad situation. We must think about God’s always making good because the Christian journey is all about our ongoing assimilation and alignment to the new life that Jesus offers to us. It is out of a bad situation because we are always in danger of forgetting that we are sinners who are always too capable of becoming worse. That God desires always to make us good and then better means that He intends to work His Word and Wisdom into our fallen state in order to save us. And for this work to be appreciated as what God begins, continues, and finishes in us, we must always and honestly confess that we are in a bad situation so that we might turn and desire to be made better by His Grace.
Of course, some people would maintain that what I am recommending amounts to something that we cannot really admit and so can never achieve. If we cannot admit that we are in a very bad situation, then there isn’t much reason to desire what would make us better. Objectively speaking, of course, such is a recipe for disaster in any realm of life. The painter who doesn’t need to paint a better picture won’t! The farmer who has no need to raise a tastier vegetable in a more efficient way won’t. The doctor who stops looking for cures for diseases will accommodate illness. And so too, the Christian who doesn’t think that he needs to be made better will never see God’s Kingdom! For, when we are driven by our own reason and the limited natures, sooner or later we settle for less because we have ceased to believe that we can find more. What I am trying to say is that we are made for God and our hearts ought to be restless until they rest in Him. The Christian believes that man is made to know and love God forever. But he knows also that he cannot do any good thing without [God]…and that only by [Him] can he be enabled to live according to [His]will. (Collect Trinity IX)
Yet, many Christians fall into trouble when they fail to surrender their bad situation to God’s Grace. St. Paul reminds us of this danger in this morning’s Epistle. He gives us the example of the ancient Jewish people whom God had delivered from bondage and slavery to the Egyptians. He tells us that, all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (1 Cor. x. 1-4) Oswald Chambers reminds us that through every cloud the Lord brings, He wants us to unlearn something. The clouds illustrate our bad situation. They are given to us so that we might unlearn false confidence in our own reason to see its true limitations. When the clouds come, we are called to remember our own powerlessness and the need for the power of God’s Grace. The clouds reveal and disclose our powerlessness. The clouds conceal and cloak the Grace that we must desire in order to be made better. Clouds come to us when we struggle with besetting sins, suffer rejection from unbelievers, or are dealing with the common drudgery of human life.
St. Paul tells us that our Jewish fathers were hidden, all of them, under a cloud, and found a path, all of them through the sea; all alike in the cloud and in the sea [the ancient Jews] were baptized into Moses’ fellowship. (Ibid, Knox, 2) And yet what do we read next? But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. (Ibid, 5) And why? They did not discern the spiritual meaning and purpose of the clouds. They did not unlearn their old natural and earthly ways. They thought that God was merely freeing them from temporal slavery and servitude to an earthly enemy. So they fell into indulging the old bad situation of their sinful condition. They began to murmur, moan, groan, and complain, wondering all the while why God had delivered them from a slavery -that at least had come with food on the table and shelter over their heads. Their preoccupation with earthly manna then turned to lust, idolatry, and fornication. God fed them in the desert, and they took it as license to rise up to play. (Ibid, 7) Thanklessly they had forgotten that their former condition was a bad spiritual situation from which God had delivered them. God began to make good out of a bad spiritual situation, by anointing them to be the fathers and progenitors of a spiritual people whose ultimate destiny should be salvation. They did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (Ibid, 4) Yet, St. Paul reminds us that their fall should warn us about the bad situation we are in and the dangers of forgetting our need for the power of God’s saving Grace in our lives. For they were overthrown in the wilderness…and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. (Ibid, 5,8)
The prudence involved in reading the clouds is nicely illustrated in this morning’s Parable of the Unjust Steward. In it, Christ tells the tale of a worldly businessman who had misused money lent to him by a wealthy creditor. The creditor summons him to his office not only for a dressing down but for certain termination. He says, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. (St. Luke xvi. 2) And without missing a beat, ever-perceptive of the imminent clouds, the financial underling thinks fast: How can I make good out of this very bad situation? He wonders: What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. (Ibid, 3,4) The unjust steward is proud. But, he is also shrewd and calculating. He knows that he can never repay the loan to his boss. Yet, he is determined not only to survive but to thrive. If the big boss won’t have him, he’ll at least respect him for having the wisdom and prudence to become a little boss. And more than that, he will not only make good out of a bad situation for himself but for the big boss’ other creditors. He’ll go into the debt-consolidation business! So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. (Ibid, 5-7) The long and short of it is that the big boss is impressed. It is not clear that the big boss had much hope in ever recalling any of the loans from his other creditors, and so he praises the economic prudence and skill that has secured this financial settlement. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely…(Ibid, 8)
Jesus concludes the parable by saying that the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. (Ibid, 8,9) Of course, Jesus tells the parable not to commend unjust stewardship. What is most instructive in the parable is the prudence or wisdom that can be found in earthly business men’s detection of the clouds and the need to reform and redeem his life in their shadow. Jesus suggests that unjust or fallen earthly man is often wiser than his spiritual counterpart when it comes to discerning the clouds and making the best out of bad situations. Like the unjust steward, we are in a bad situation, in that we can never repay our Lord, our spiritual creditor, what we owe Him. Like the ancient Jews, living under the cloud of our spiritual poverty, we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect, Lent II) And like the unjust steward, we are unjust by reason of our spiritual negligence.
Monsignor Knox asks, Who is the Unjust Steward?...He is you and I and every one of us; we are all, as children of Adam, unfaithful servants who have been detected in our delinquency. By rights…we have forfeited every claim. We have earthly riches –the unrighteous mammon– still in our possession, and it is out of that that we must strive to gain ourselves a good reward in the day of necessity, by giving alms generously to those in need. (Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, p. 170) So, we are called to give of our earthly substance to those in need in an unselfconsciously generous way. Why? It will reveal that what is of real value and worth for us is behind the clouds. God is challenging us to give freely under the clouds of fallen existence so that He might reveal His treasure to us. When the storm-clouds gather, God offers to overcome our powerlessness and poverty with His strength and riches. We do well to remember that we who live under the clouds are all poor. Thus we must help one another. None of us has any claim on the mercy of the all-just Creditor: we have been the cause of our own shortcomings; God is not responsible for the misuse of His gifts. If we would find mercy in that hour, will it not be wise…to establish a precedent for generosity and largesse [with the mammon of unrighteousness], while there is yet time? (Idem)
Today let us become just stewards of God’s Grace, a Grace that is meant to be multiplied prudently and shared with the world. In so doing, when we leave the unrighteous mammon of this world behind, being caught up in the clouds, when we fail, we shall be welcomed into everlasting habitations because we have allowed God to make the best out of our bad situation. (Idem)
O God whose never-failing providence ordereth all things
both in heaven and earth, we humbly beseech thee to put away
from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things that be
profitable for us…
(Collect: Trinity VIII)
We concluded last week’s sermon with an exhortation to zeal. Having learned that the Divine desire for all men is that they faint not, but rather feed continually on the living Word of God, we opened our souls to the ongoing nutriment that overcomes sloth. I hope that we prayed fervently that the love of God might grow in us, grafting in our hearts the love of His name, increasing in us true religion, nourishing us with all goodness, and…keeping us in the same. In a sense, what we prayed for was that the same providence that ordereth all things in heaven and in earth, might rule and govern our lives zealously. Its actualization, we learned, would depend upon our willful desire and longing for its ongoing, effectual operation.
But what is this never-failing providence that we pray should overcome things hurtful to our pious zeal? Providence comes to us from the Latin providentia, and it means literally looking for or seeing into. In former times the word was used to describe God’s knowledge of all things –past, present, and future, in the eternal now of His perfect vision. Some theologians used it to defend the Divine Grace against the claims of others who were insistent upon the claims of free will. The doctrine of Divine providence insists that God knows every particular form of created life in all ages and simultaneously. Perhaps a simpler way of putting it is that nothing ever has or ever will escape His all-penetrating gaze and knowledge. Nothing escapes God’s seeing and knowing, because his never failing providence orders all things in heaven and earth. Whether men acknowledge it or not, God’s thinking of all things is present to and determinative of everything that ever has, does, or will happen. What happens in the universe is subject completely to God’s will at all times. Even evil itself –a rejection of God’s Wisdom and Will, much to its own rage and resentment, has meaning only in relation to God and His Goodness!
We might find this view of Divine Providence not a little bit intimidating and disconcerting. The all-seeing eye of God, the surveyor and judge, might startle and shake us. But as your preacher, I would like you to know that I think that this is a good and healthy thing! Post-modern, materialistic Christians have become far too at ease with treating God like the aider and abettor of temporary earthly happiness. They gather and fancy presumptuously that God’s chief role and function in the universe is to overcome any material impediment to generate a kind of bodily buzz. Of course, what they have forgotten is God is not really interested in earthly and impermanent expressions of happiness. He is far more concerned with the state of the soul that is required of us if we hope to find eternal happiness. All of the comfort in the world cannot save a man. And it might even be so powerful as to impede and prevent him from ever finding the way to everlasting salvation.
Worldly, earthly, or temporal happiness is not what God intends for us to be consumed within this life. We do well to remind ourselves that God does see and know all things, and that His ever-present gaze sifts, weighs, and measures the devices and desires of our own hearts and the intentions and motives of our choices. Not only does He see, but also He knows; not only does He know, but also He judges and discerns where our voluntary choices situate us in relation to His Divine Wisdom and Love. God is nothing if not fair. St. Paul reminds us: Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. (Gal. vi. 7,8) What we will to think, say, and do shall, in the end, determine where we end up.
What we should want, then, is to embrace the Divine Wisdom in such a way that ensures our salvation. First, we need to discern how God sees or knows all things. What I mean is that we should discover what things are and how they might affect us. Next, we must learn how to use them appropriately. Put away from us all hurtful things and give us those things which are profitable for our salvation. Providence, again, is the vision or knowledge by which God enlivens, orders, rules, governs, informs, and defines created beings. It is also the Wisdom that reveals to us why and for what purposes God intends for us to use them.
The author of this morning’s Old Testament lesson tells us that man best begins to open up to Divine Providence and Wisdom through the fear of the Lord. All wisdom cometh from God and is with Him forever. (Ecclus. i. 1) We ought to fear God for His Wisdom. This means that we ought to have a healthy trepidation of the fact that God knows best what things are and how they can be used or misused. Air is necessary for ongoing life. Fire is made to rise and to heat. Water is made to nourish and fertilize or to cleanse and to purge. Man is made to know also that air can contaminate, fire can burn, and that water can drown. The knowledge of these kinds of things ought to inform and condition our wills. The fear of the Lord is that healthy state that cautions us in relation to all things. Whoso feareth the Lord, it shall go well with him at the last. (Ecclus. i. 14) The fear of the Lord is a salutary reminder that we ought to use the creation only in God’s service now so that it may go well with us in the end. It is a salubrious sense of God’s omnipresent vision and desire for us. For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Isaiah lvii. 15) The fear of the Lord engenders humility of heart. Humility of heart sees the truth and intends to will the best. The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate, [saith the Lord]. (Prov. viii. 13)
God’s providence is His Divine Wisdom. St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting Aristotle, links it with order. He says it belongs to the wise man to order….The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe. That is why, according to the Philosopher, it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes.(SCG i. 1) The wise man orders his life with virtue to pursue the highest ends. The wiser man knows that it belongs to the gift of wisdom to judge according to the Divine Truth. A man judges well what he knows. (Eth. i. 3, ST, ii, ii, xlv. 1) Of course, the pattern and model of Divine Wisdom in the flesh has been given to us in the life of our Saviour Jesus Christ. In Christ, we find the Divine Wisdom ordering human life perfectly. And the same Wisdom that was made flesh long ago forever longs to share its life with us. He teaches us that we should be debtors not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. (Romans viii. 12). Rather, the Divine providence intends that we should be illuminated and liberated by Christ the power of God and the Wisdom of God. (1 Cor. i. 24), remembering that if we through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, we shall live. (Romans viii. 13) Wisdom intends that we should serve a higher end. In this morning’s Gospel, the wise man is compared to a good tree that bringeth forth good fruit. (St. Matthew vii. 17) The good fruit is the virtue that grows up out of a body tamed by the soul that serves the spirit. Wisdom can be operative only when we intend to submit the body, soul, and spirit to the gift of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ so that the Holy Wisdom might purge us of all things hurtful to us in the world, through the flesh, and by the influence of the devil.
In the face of Divine Wisdom, we must ask ourselves this morning these questions: Do I humble myself before the never-failing providence that orders all things in heaven and earth? Do I thank God because I know that my creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life depend upon His providence? Do I desire that His Wisdom might enter my soul and crucify all things hurtful that distract and delay my adhesion to His will? Do I remember that I was born to be a child of God’s omnipotent Wisdom through the fear of the Lord, seeking, knocking, and asking? As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Romans viii 14) Proverbs remind us that the Spirit of Wisdom crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city She uttereth her words, saying, How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my Spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you. (Proverbs i. 21-23)
Today’s lesson is not merely about vision or even willing a limited good. Today Wisdom calls us to cultivate the intention to please God in all of our lives so that we shall be saved. William Law tells us that it was this general intention, that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety, and made the goodly fellowship of the saints, and all the glorious army of martyrs and confessors. Mr. Law tells us also that if we wonder why the Wisdom of God is not giving us the same intention that the primitive Christians possessed, we shall find that it is neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because we never thoroughly intended it. What we intend is inspired by what we love. So let us intend to love God above all things in order that by His Wisdom we might find those things profitable for us, profitable to our salvation.
Graft in our hearts the love of thy name, increase in us
true religion, nourish with all goodness, and of thy great mercy
keep us in the same.
(Collect: Trinity VII)
If you spend time reading the Epistles of St. Paul carefully, you cannot help but come away with a sense of the Apostle’s uncanny ability to unite spiritual contraries to make his point. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of his momentous conversion, when, in a fit of zealous and rabid hot pursuit of Damascan Christians, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he was thrown down from the high horse of his feverish pride onto the dry, dusty, and desolate road where, in all humility, he was best positioned to find Christ. Paul the zealot, Paul the judge, Paul the persecutor of Christians, endured an extreme turnabout and volte-face of his entire character. He was blinded, and was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. (Acts. ix 9) From the high perch of his passionate pursuit of the vibrant spiritual life, he was thrown down into startling and frightening spiritual blindness and death. Out of it, he became the man that he had never been before. And yet what we must understand is that he was meant to endure the contraries in order to feel the force of the salvation that God alone could bring into his life. St. Paul’s sight was restored by a certain Ananias, he was given food to eat, and spent three years in Damascus (Gal. i. 17, 18) In time the zeal with which he persecuted Christ was converted into a fiery passion for all men’s conversion. His alacrity and fervor became contagious because his mind was agile. Jesus intended to use him as [His] chosen instrument to proclaim [His] name to the Gentiles,… their kings,… and to the people of Israel. (Acts ix. 15)
Zeal is the virtue opposite to the vice of sloth. Sloth is a mortal sin, and it is to that sin that we must turn before considering the zeal that seeks out conversion and sanctification. You might think it odd that we must study sloth today since it neither characterizes St. Paul before or after his conversion, nor does it seem to find expression in today’s Gospel. In the Gospel, we read that a great multitude of people had been following Jesus for three days in the wilderness. (St. Mark viii. 2) With zeal, they had been pursuing the truth that they found in Christ and were hoping that it pointed to a reality of more than ephemeral and transitory meaning. They, like St. Paul, were zealously cleaving to Jesus, having forsaken the customary human haunts that had only ever brought them impermanent and fleeting joy. In fact, because of their diligent determination to follow and hear Him, an unpremeditated fast had ensued. Nothing in the text suggests that they were restless, irritable, or discontented because their spiritual journey had been bereft of food and drink. So intent were they upon the pursuit of their spiritual good that physical nutriment seemed a radical contrary or something only dangerously opposed to the singular demands of the spirit’s commands.
But Jesus, perceiving an imminent danger, says, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat: And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far. (St. Mark viii. 2, 3) Jesus comes not to destroy human nature but to redeem it. He intends to bring to completion the good work which he has begun in them. (Phil. i. 6) They are in danger of fainting. To faint in Scripture means to fall by the wayside spiritually, to lose spiritual steam, to become weak, languid, exhausted, and feeble. To faint means to lose one’s zeal. Men are not pure spirits, the soul is embodied, and thus the whole man must be sustained. One who faints has a faith that is in danger of dying and whose pious zeal might wither and dry up because he has no deepness of spiritual earth. (St. Matthew xiii. 5) Jesus knows that danger that looms in the hearts of those who are pursuing Him with a zealous passion. The author of Proverbs says, if a man faint in the day of adversity, his strength is small. (Prov. xxiv. 10) The truth that Christ brings is threatened not by paranormal events but in the common drudgery of human life. Adversity here might be as basic as physical exhaustion, hunger, or thirst – the heat of the day. Should the soul’s good be pursued at the expense of the body, the earnest pilgrim might faint, fail, and fall away from Christ. He might be overwhelmed by sloth because his body has not been reconciled to his spiritual quest.
The Church Fathers tell us that the potential fainting that threatens those who have followed Jesus into the wilderness in this morning’s Gospel is a temptation to sloth. Sloth is one of the Seven Mortal or Deadly Sins. Most people identify it as laziness or indolence that leads to physical neglect through gluttony. The body’s vengeance upon spiritual asceticism – the imminent danger in this morning’s Gospel – certainly contributes to sloth. Physical hunger from fasting can generate a state that impedes continued spiritual progress. But the true nature of sloth is a far more debilitating and destructive mental condition. The fainting that Jesus seeks to combat most of all is spiritual sloth. He fears that the Word which He has planted in the hearts of His followers might die. In her commentary on her translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, Dorothy Sayers tells us that sloth is the sixth deadly sin. In this world it is called tolerance but in hell, it is called despair…It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for…It prevents men from thinking. Sloth persuades us that stupidity is not a sin but a misfortune. (An Address… October, 1941) Sloth is a deadly sin because it has ceased to reach out for the truth, beauty, and goodness that God longs to infuse into the human heart. Sloth cannot be bothered either by extreme goodness or exaggerated evil because it has lost its spiritual pluck! Because it cannot find joy in small victories, dejection, despair, and unbelief overwhelm it. It lacks the zeal and courage to pry out the good from the evil and to convince men of virtue’s new birth. Sloth convinces the soul that the spiritual life is too high to be sustained in a body, which seems alien and averse to continued sanctification. Its nature is to assert the body’s weakness against the soul’s potential strength.
Today Jesus desires that we faint not by the spiritual way. He knows, with St. Paul, that we are weak. I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh and that ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness, and to iniquity unto iniquity. (Romans vi. 19) It will take time and hard work for weak sinners to be weaned from the customary repetition of habitual sin. But against spiritual sloth, St. Paul urges us to pursue zeal conscientiously. Yield your members servants to righteousness, unto holiness. (Romans vi. 19) His extreme zeal for the Gospel stands over and against the sinister and deleterious designs of sloth. He knows that sloth will kill the soul that both neglects the good and does evil.
Jesus fed the four thousand many years ago in order to overcome their temptation to sloth. He zealously longs to feed us today. Then He took seven loaves of bread and a few small fishes, and today He takes a small portion of bread and a cup of red wine. Now, as then, a small amount of earthly fare can be sufficient to conquer spiritual sloth. Now, as then, the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah xxxvii. 32) St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that zeal arises from the intensity of love, because the more intensely a power tends to anything, the more vigorously it withstands opposition and resistance. (ST i. ii. 28, 4) The zeal we seek to embrace comes to us first in God’s determined and diligent love of us in Jesus Christ. That zeal intends to eradicate any sloth that threatens to dampen our spiritual enthusiasm and quench our desire for Jesus’ work in our lives. If we begin to appreciate the advances and intentions of God’s love, the intensity or responsive love will grow stronger and stronger until it conquers all spiritual sloth in us. If we understand this Divine zeal and meet it with an equal passion and devotion, then with the four thousand we shall begin to apprehend, absorb, and appreciate its power to sanctify and save us. Its kindling fire will strengthen our faith, broaden our hope, and deepen our love for the Lord. It will enable us to seek…. first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…. (St. Matthew vi. 33) And like the four thousand, we shall take no thought of what we shall eat, and what we shall drink. For our Heavenly Father knoweth that we have need of such things. (Ibid, 31, 32) All these things shall be added unto us, as what strengthen the body that houses a soul bent on zeal. In the end what He gives will be just enough to perpetuate and enlarge our zeal for working out our salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) With Dr. Jenks we shall pray, O let us not spend our zeal and spirits for earthly but for heavenly things, not for our own lust and honor but for God’s blessed will and pleasure. (Jenks, 274) And with that we shall feel the effects that extreme Divine gift of God’s great zeal in our souls, which will graft in our hearts the love of His name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of [His] great mercy, keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. (Collect: Trinity VII)
O God who hast prepared for them that love Thee
such good things as pass man’s understanding…
(Collect: Trinity VI)
Trinity-tide is all about growing in the knowledge and love of God; it is the green season, and in it, we focus on God’s spiritual harvesting of fertile virtue in our souls. The green vestments and Altar hangings of the season encourage us to pursue the fecundity of spiritual love and hope. We are being readied for things whose goodness, truth, and beauty exceed our wildest imagination. Yet the promised vision hinges upon our loving God above all things. The Divine Lover will reward our love for Him if we intend above all to be taken into His embrace. Our spiritual passion must be focused upon obtaining the Divine promises. Pour into our hearts such love toward Thee, that we, loving Thee above all things, may obtain Thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire. Not only will the vision of God exceed the limitations of human thought, but the love of God will burst the bounds of all human affection.
But loving God doesn’t come easily or quickly. The virtue is not easily attained. Last week we remembered the life and witness of Saints Peter and Paul and how they surrendered themselves to the radical otherness of God in Jesus. And so with a deeper fear of the Lord, their faith and confidence in Jesus were stirred as they forsook all and followed Him. (St. Luke v. 11) As such, they were being caught up in Christ’s net. Slowly but surely they began to die to themselves as they began to love Him, who loved them with the love of the Father. To be loved inspires unanticipated responsive affection. As the Apostles were touched by the love of God from the heart of Jesus, they would then begin to cultivate and perfect reciprocal love.
If we are going to learn how to love God above all things, we had better begin with obedience, the fear of the Lord, and faith in God’s promises. Christ says to us today that except [our] righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, [we] shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew v. 20) The righteousness or justice of the ancient Jews –of the Scribes and Pharisees – is the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Jesus makes it clear that the observance of this law reveals a kind of love that is limited, measured, and contrived to yield earthly gain. It is intent upon manipulating and controlling people so that they behave in a certain way. It judges men and then rewards or punishes the effects or results of their choices. It might even assume that human justice is ultimate and final. But, as Romano Guardini reminds us, so long as we cling to this human justice, we will never be guiltless of injustice. As long as we are entangled in wrong and revenge, blow and counterblow, aggression and defense, we will be constantly drawn into fresh wrong. (The Lord, p. 81) Think about it. We are moved and defined by evil and what is wrong. In response to it, we think that we must use only those tools that evil understands. We are actually caught in wrong and evil. We think that we are doing good but we have forgotten that we ought to overcome evil with a much greater good, the good that comes from love. We think that we have won a victory for justice when in truth we have become the unwitting victims of an unending cycle of sin. Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans xii. 19)
Jesus goes on to find the origin and cause of our inadequate love in the soul. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.(Ibid, 21, 22) By reason of our fallen spiritual condition we naturally love those who love us and hate those who hate us. We love those less who do not love us enough or meet our expectations. We judge their inadequate love to be hate and we respond in kind or worse. And while there may be just cause for righteous anger in certain situations, Christ seems to imply that this is all the more reason to love with greater passion in the interests of helping an offending brother out of his sin and into righteousness. This is what God wants. Yet because of our own insecurities, we respond with, Raca or Thou Fool! The Biblical Scholars tells us that Raca means worthless or empty one. So, beginning from within the human heart and mind the man who is angry with his brother and not the cause (Idem) is in spiritual trouble. Jesus says that what happens is that the sinner and not his sin has become an object of retaliation and retribution. What has happened is that the offending party has been elevated to the status of a worthless and empty false god. If we hadn’t made him into a false god, we would hate the sin but love the sinner!
Jesus teaches us that the real threat to loving [God] above all things is internal and spiritual insecurity and fear. Anger or wrath is easier than the creative love that might help a brother or sister. Sloth also impedes the desire to help. Envy and Pride, no doubt, play their respective roles. When one hates another man, he ceases to hope for that man’s conversion and salvation. He judges his enemy –if he even is an enemy because he has never felt the healing power of God’s mercy in his own soul. He is probably afraid to be touched by God’s love. He forgets that his soul is always in need of God’s power of healing and transformation. He finds God’s love too daunting to accept because it is too dreadful to consider.
However, if God’s merciful curative love begins to touch and change the human soul, as it did with the Apostles, there is hope that it will discover God’s promises. Yet it must be pursued conscientiously with all due diligence. All potential threats to its growth in the soul must be abandoned with haste. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother …Agree with thine adversary quickly…lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. (Ibid, 24,25) What imperils the fertility and harvest of God’s love in the human soul is other people and our judgment of them. The angry pursuit of earthly justice elevates human injury to the level of Divine importance. We may wreak vengeance on an earthly enemy, but what are we left with? A crop of self-satisfaction that quenches the spiritual discovery of those good things as pass man’s understanding…and the promises that exceed all that we can desire. What is lost is the needful and merciful love of God which longs to lift the accuser and accused above their division and difference and into God’s healing love. Anger makes [a man] smaller, while forgiveness enables him to grow beyond what he was. (Cherie Carter-Scott)
Jesus teaches us that if we long for such good things as pass man’s understanding, God’s promise to heal our souls will come true as His compassionate love corrects and cures us. Thus, anything and everything that impedes the progress of our loving God above all things must be put in its proper place. We must confess, with Dr. Jenks, that we have foolishly and wickedly forsaken the fountain of living waters, to hew to ourselves broken cisterns, that can hold no water; shutting our hearts against the love of our chiefest good…preferring trifles and vanities of this present time; and the satisfaction of our own foolish and hurtful lusts, above God and His love, which is better than life itself. (Jenks, Prayers…168)
So, Jesus tells us that if God’s love is to become our chief delight, we must agree with our adversary quickly. (Idem) This is the testing ground for our love. On it God sees whether we truly are aiming to love Him above all things. Agreeing with our adversary quickly means that we ought to endure his attack by disarming. First, we ought to listen quietly and calmly to those who have something against us. It encourages us to see our enemy as a potential brother in the Lord and to pray for rather than judge him with a harsh word or violent affection. Geoffrey Chaucer tells us that the remedy for gire and rash rage in order to discern our enemy’s sickness and pray for his cure. Patience endures the enemy’s assault out of hope for his salvation.
Both gentleness and patience are virtues that come out of the heart of Christ who loves God above all things. Christ enlarges His heart to welcome us into His loving. His gentleness and patience enabled His love to go to the Cross for us. But His love does not cease to flow back to God and out to all men in His death. His love is that Divine gentleness and patience that rises up into Resurrection and Ascension and then descends once again into Pentecostal fire. It loves God above all things and loves God in and for all things. It seeks what is above in order to penetrate and convert what is below. Because it is always returning to its source, it can bring good out of evil, right out of wrong, and love out of hate. This is the love that exceeds and passes man’s understanding. This is the love that desires to enlarge our affection that we can touch all men with the hope of Christ’s healing.
St. Paul tells us this morning that this kind of love will be found if we remember that we have been baptized into Christ’s death. (Romans vi. 3) Being baptized into Christ’s death means that the body of our sin is being destroyed. (Ibid, 5) The merciful operation by which the love of Christ is bringing sin to death in our hearts must always make us conscious of our own imperfection. There is always something better to be attained in Christ. Agree with thine adversary quickly, Jesus insists. Otherwise, we shall never find it.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons