Lent IV 2019
So then, brethren, we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free.
(Gal. iv. 21)
The theme for the Fourth Sunday in Lent is liberation and freedom. And our lections for the past three Sundays have been leading us up to this point. On the First Sunday in Lent, we learned that Jesus Christ was tempted like as we are, yet without sin. (Hebr. iv. 15) What we found, I hope, was that the first step on the road to freedom was Christ’s willingness to be tried and tested as we are. We are tempted, and so was He. He resisted the temptations through an act of free will and desires to do the same in and through us. On the Second Sunday of Lent we learned that when we become faithful and loyal dogs which need the crumbs that fall from the Jesus’ table, we shall freely discover a humility that opens our hearts to God’s healing power. And last Sunday we learned that eating the fragments of Christ’s Word is meant to grow into a persistent habit which on the freely willed hearing and keeping the Word move and define us. In sum, then, we are undertaking a difficult and daunting work or labor that will lead us into freedom. The problem is that we become obsessed with our own good works and not with the faith in God’s Grace. We are tempted to forget that it is faith in God’s promises that liberates us and moves us to follow the road to true freedom.
St. Paul is very much aware of this pernicious proclivity in the human heart, and he addresses it head-on in this morning’s Epistle. In his case, what he finds is that Judaizing Christians are threatening the spiritual freedom of his flock. Judaizing Christianswere early believers who taught that strict adherence to the Jewish Law was essential to the success of salvation. Being Jewish, as God’s chosen and elect people, was more important to them than faith in Christ’s redemptive power. They believed that circumcision, dietary regulations, and the ceremonial Jewish Law were necessary for salvation. So, in effect, the ritual traditions of Judaism were as necessary to them as faith in Christ and the work that His Grace. The end result was that Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit seemed subject to the prior binding nature of the Jewish Law. But St. Paul knows that devotion to the tradition of the Law can never sanctify or save a man. If the Jewish Law had been able to save a man, it would have and there would not have been any need for Christ.
St. Paul uses an allegory drawn from the life of Abraham to show these Jewish Christians that they were behaving more like slaves than the free children of God. He uses the illustration of Hagar and her son Ishmael. You will remember that Hagar was Sarah’s slave-girl. She produced the bastard-heir Ishmael for Abram. Prior to the conception of his children, when Abram was old, God promised him that he would sire an heir, and that he would be the Father of children more numerous than the stars in the sky. (Gen. xv. 5) And so Abram and Sarai his wife got to thinking. They were old, childless, and beyond the age of conceiving a child. It was not that they had no faith, but their faith was not strong enough to trust in what seemed naturally improbable, if not impossible. They were too earthly minded. And so they thought that in order to obey God and sire a child, Abram would have to mate with Sarai’s slave girl Hagar. So Abram did so, and Ishmael the son of the bond-woman was born. But Abram and Sarai’s natural and human solution to the problem of siring children was not God’s will for them. Abram and Sarai were enslaved to their own human ingenuity and the good work which they thought they had wrought. They had not found the freedom that is the fruit of faith in God’s Word. But God had other plans for them, and would elicit from them a faith in His promises that would make them the spiritual father and mother of many nations. Because of their increased faith, they would come become the parents of Isaac in their old age. What they learned was that faith in God alone generates true freedom from our fallen and limited earthly existence.
So St. Paul tells us that the early Jewish Christians were behaving more like Ishmael the son of the slave woman than Isaac the son of promise. Because they were consumed with the Jewishness of Jesus and not with His liberating nature as the Son of God, they were slaves to the flesh. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. (Ibid, 29)The early Jewish Christians were caught up in the flesh and not the Spirit. For St. Paul, these Jewish Christians saw Jesus as the apex, apogee, and acme of their own obedience to God through the [Law of] the flesh. They saw Him as the fulfillment of a long history of Jewish obedience to God through the Law. But they did not see aright.What they could not see was that Christ had transformed the Law of fleshly commandments and observances into that Law of faith and belief that ought to follow Him to the Kingdom through the freedom of the will.
But St. Paul is not content to leave it at that. He takes another turn in his allegory that he hopes will eradicate primitive Jewish fleshly pride. He tells them that though Hagar was the slave mother of the slave child Ishmael –and thus of all the Arabic people, she is no different from the earthly children of Israel. A better translation than our Authorized Version reads that Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. (Gal. iv. 25) For those who desire to be under the [old Jewish] law (Ibid, 21), there is no practical distinction between being an unsaved Gentile or an unsaved Jew. St. Paul has added insult to injury. He tells the Jewish Christians that though they are by birthright the children of Jerusalem, they look much more like the spiritual children of Arabia, and that their coveted and cherished Mount Sinai is actually, in spiritual terms, an Arabic hill! As Monsignor Knox says, Mount Sinai, in Arabia, has the same meaning in the allegory as Jerusalem; the Jerusalem which exists here and now; an enslaved city, whose children are slaves. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 100) Both Jews and Gentiles live in bondage to the elements of nature and her laws. They do so because all men are born slaves to sin. They can become Christians only through the freely willed act of faith in God’s promises. The historic Jerusalem is in bondage and can only find freedom in the spiritual Jerusalem of God’s kingdom. For, Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. (Ibid, 26, 27)Sarah, well-stricken in years and barren by reason of nature’s laws, through Abraham’s faith, became the mother of promise. Mary, young and innocent, who was barren in the sense that she knew not a man, became the mother of the promise’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The faith of both look forward to promises that are to be enjoyed in the liberation and freedom that is above creation in God’s own Kingdom.
My friends, this Sunday in Lent is called Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or in Latin, Laetare Sunday. The Latin from the ancient introit to the Mass is Laetare Jerusalem: O be joyful, Jerusalem. Today we are called to remember that our salvation comes to us only through faith in God’s promises. So as we continue our Lenten journey up to the Cross of Christ’s love, Mother Church desires to bring us out of slavery and into the freedom of new life. When we live as children of the bondwoman…born after the flesh…and in bondage, (Gal. iv. 23,24) under the elements of the world (Gal. iv. 3) doing service unto them which by nature are no gods (Gal. iv. 8), we are enslaved to Hagar and Ishmael. When this world’s natural attachments, human expectations, and earthly hopes consume us, we imperil and threaten the free operation of God’s Grace in our hearts. The problem is not with the world but with Christians who are too enslaved to it and thus are not being made free from above.
This problem is not new. And, so, as St. Paul rebuked the ancient Galatian church long ago, he admonishes and reproaches us today. My little children, I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you….(Gal. iv. 19 Jerusalem which is above…is free…the mother of us all. (Gal. iv. 26) For Christ to be formed in us, we must allow Him to work His redemption into our hearts. To allow that work to begin, we must freely desire the Grace of God in Christ to rule our hearts. For it to be effective, we must choose also to die to the flesh and the natural man.As Oswald Chambers writes: Some of us are trying to offer up spiritual sacrifices to God before we have sacrificed the natural. (M.U….Dec.10) The Law of Nature binds us to the old Law of sin. Sin’s hold on us must be confessed before true faith in God’s promises can have their effect. Bondage to the flesh is not freedom. Abram’s freedom was found when he trusted in God’s Word. Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness. (Rom. iv. 3)The Blessed Virgin Mary did the same.Her faith so filled her with all of God’s Grace that His promise was conceived in her womb and born into the world. The five thousand followed Christ the Word and trusted in His promises. As a reward, they were fed and filled.
True freedom comes to us when we sacrifice the Ishmael in all of our lives. Ishmael is in bondage to this world. Are we in bondage to this world -to its false promises, false comforts, false delights, and illusory freedoms? If so, we have come to right place. Here we come to feed on the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. This is food for men wayfaring. We are those men wayfaring, moving from earth to heaven, from Mount Sinai to Jerusalem. Here we freely will to journey to Jerusalem which is above…free…[and] the mother of us all, during this holy season of Lent. Here we learn to freely follow the God of Jesus Christ, who alone can make us the free citizens of the Heavenly City.
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.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons