Saturday, September 20, 2008

The 12th Sunday of Pentecost

September 7th, 2008

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirt, glory to Jesus Christ!

Glory forever!

There is probably no gospel verse that’s repeated more in our time in the English language than that verse John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” You see at baseball stadiums people with signs saying, “John 3:16,” people signing their names and writing that afterwards, people having that as their license plate. Yet, how tragic, that the very simplicity of the words evades most of those who utter them or who quote them. For it doesn’t say, that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten so that everybody who believes THAT Jesus is the son of God, or THAT Jesus came into the world, or THAT Jesus died and rose again should not perish and everlasting life; but everybody who believes IN Him. And to believe IN Christ doesn’t mean to believe THAT Christ – the devil believes THAT Christ. The devil knows that Jesus is God now – he didn’t understand it exactly before; he thought he could ensnare Him in hell and bind Him there, and that’s why he let Him in, so that He could break the gates of bronze and the bars of iron. But now he understands that. The devil has perfect faith in all the doctrines of Orthodoxy – he knows them all to be true. And yet, the devil has perished because he does not believe in Christ. That is to say, he doesn’t understand that salvation is not just being plucked out of the fire and then set up as your own individual idol with your personal Jesus; but that being saved is being transplanted into the kingdom of heaven, as a planting, as a vine connected to the vine, as a branch of the vine. That being a believer in Jesus means being taken from the kingdom of darkness and citizenship in that kingdom and made a citizen of the Light.

Yesterday and every Saturday for the last month we have baptized children. We have taken these children who were, as the baptismal service says, “children of the body,” and we have made the children of the kingdom. They have been born again with the opportunity to grow in the faith and grace that is given to them, so they may remain faithful to their citizenship in God’s kingdom.

So our Lord tells us here that God so loves the world that He sent Jesus so that we could become one with Jesus. The Church, we understand is His body. As the apostle says, “We are very members of his flesh and of his bones;” members incorporate, no allegorical, symbolic, or analogical members but physical members.

That’s why we venerate God’s mother so greatly because we, when we were born again, became part of the body of Christ. All the body of Christ, every cell, every organ, His flesh, His blood, His genes, every part of Him with the exception of His maleness, was taken from the flesh of the Holy Theotokos.

And having understood this, we go back to what the Lord tells us about the people of Israel. They were a group too, just as the Church is the body of Christ, the new Israel, a pilgrim people moving from the darkness and wickedness of a fallen world into the kingdom of heaven; so the Jewish people, the Israelites were moving. They had been slaves, literally tormented, forced to labor with great pain and with great agony, and forced to gather their own straw to build bricks to erect houses to honor the gods of the Egyptians. And when God brought them out after many trials of the Egyptians, they stood at the bank of the Red Sea and turned to Moses as though he had led them out to slaughter.

And then he said, “Stand fast and behold the glory of the Lord.”

God parted the sea and with a pillar of fire blocked the Egyptians, and then the pillar went before them and led them, and the sea closed and drowned Pharaoh and his chariots, and the people were delivered. A miracle beyond expectation, a glorious deliverance, a wonderful salvation, a foreshadowing of Christ’s own death and resurrection. Yet when the people got into the wilderness and they travelled in nine days to the mount of the Lord and camped there, no sooner was Moses up on the mountain, fasting for 40 days waiting to receive from God his marching orders and the covenant of the people after their deliverance from slavery, than the people in the valley there began to feast and to drink and to party and to build for themselves idols like the ones they had seen in Egypt and to say, “Maybe he led us out here to die in the desert. Maybe if we go back into Egypt and ask Pharaoh really nicely he’ll let us back into Egypt and let us be his slaves again.”

When Moses came down his heart was broken. And you know that Moses took the first tables of the law and smashed them. He broke them into fragments to show the people that they had broken the covenant even before they knew it. People who had seen great miracles, great marvels, who had experience great deliverance, who had felt in their hearts the joy of salvation, and determined that they would ignore that, that they would forget it. They would turn their backs on the God who was the pillar of fire that led them out of slavery, and that they would turn to the worship of the very demons that had ruled and obsessed them in the home of their captivity. The people then began to wander, and God, having forgiven them did not leave them without hope. He brought them to the borders of the Promised L

and expeditiously, quickly. They came to the borders of Canaan, and God said to them, “Enter in and take possession, this is the land of promise.”

And the people said, “We’re afraid.”

So they sent spies – twelve men to look at the land and to examine it.

And they came back and they said, “It’s a rich land, a land flowing with milk and honey. In its mountains are iron and gold.”

They brought back with them a bunch of grapes that was so large that two men had to carry it on a stick between them.

But they said, “The men there are ferocious. They’re huge and they’re strong.”

And the Israelites said, “We don’t think we can risk it.”

So all the people except for Joshua and Hurr, all ten of the 12 spies advised the people, “No, stay out here in the desert where you’re safe.”

And so God said, “None of those who tasted the manna in the desert before now, none of those to whom I have offered salvation and who hardened their hearts, shall enter into my rest.”

They hardened their hearts and their bones were buried along the winding road which they wandered in the desert for 40 years because they refused to accept God’s invitation to enter into salvation.

How Moses heart must have been rent again. He had led the people out of Egypt, and he was leading them into deliverance. Do not be mistaken, the author of Hebrews tells us, and I’ve told you before, that if had they chosen to enter into Canaan, they would not have gone in and fought the Canaanites, they would have walked into Paradise itself and they would have been restored to the grace that god had bestowed on Adam and Eve before the fall. They would have been delivered in a way analogous to the way in which Enoch and Elijah were delivered, but they refused it and instead every person who had come out of Egypt, who had seen the mighty acts of God and then had spat in his face, everyone who had turned his face toward the setting sun and walked away from the gate of paradise, everyone died in the dessert. Only their children, those born in the wilderness along with Joshua and Hurr who had argued that the people needed to enter, were allowed to enter into the promised land after 40 years of ______.

And while they were in the desert, the people tried Moses and they caused great pain to his heart.

They said, “Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die?” They longed for the flesh pots of Egypt, for the cucumbers and the swine’s meat.

They said, “There’s nothing to eat here except this manna.”

And then God gave them quail, and they said, “This quail is making us sick. We want some variety.”

When they found it difficult to wander from oasis to oasis, God gave them a rock, which the apostle says was an icon of Christ Himself. A rock that travelled with them, from which God would give them water.

And they provoked Moses so that rather than saying, “God is going to give you water from this rock,” he said, “Must I get you water from this rock,” and he struck the rock twice.

And God said, “Ok Moses, now you’ve joined them. You’ve taken credit for giving them the water and you may not enter into the promised land.”

So Moses was allowed to climb up onto the Mount Gilboa and to look over into the promised land, but he did not see it until Christ conquered death with His death.

And while they were in the wilderness, they continued to sin. They continued to protest that God was not doing enough for them, to complain because they were stuck in this place where they had chosen to remain. And serpents came and began to bite them: poisonous snakes, the very images of their own hateful and poisonous thoughts and words.

And people began to die, and they came to Moses and said, “Pray for us.”

So Moses prayed to God and he took bronze and he made with it a serpent, a serpent called a seraphim serpent, a flaming serpent, a hot fiery serpent, a molten serpent; and he put it upon a cross and he held it up in the air and he said, “When you’re bitten, when your sins come back to strike you, when the maliciousness of your own words and thoughts causes you to be stung with the sting of death, look up and live!”

So the people when the looked up to the serpent, they saw there their own sin represented on the cross, they received life from this emblem of death.

And that’s what the Lord was referring to when He spoke of His passion, when He said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so shall the Son of Man be lifted up.”

We understand, brothers and sisters, that God constantly is offering to His people not only the grace of faith, but many, many signs and wonders, miracles and manifestations, many marvels, many tokens of His being with us, of His grace toward us, and of His love for us.

And it’s we who are always saying, “What have you done for me lately God? What did you do for me today God?”

And if God doesn’t do it today, and He hadn’t done it yesterday, and we don’t experience it tomorrow, we begin to say, “There is no God,” and to build golden idols, and to sit down to eat and drink, and to stand up and fornicate like the people in the desert. We begin to become pagans again. We are like infants requiring constant attention from our God, and if he leaves us to ourselves so that we can learn to walk, then we become angry with him

When I think about Moses and how his heart was broken, and how many, many times he grieved, how he cried out to God in anguish, how he wished he had not been the one that was chosen, and how he saw his adopted mother, that Egyptian woman who came out with them, and how he saw his real mother, and how he saw his sister, and how he saw his brother Aaron one by one parish in the desert to be buried in the sand, and how he then himself fell asleep upon the mountain, not even sure that the people would possess the faith when the time came again to cross the Jordan and enter into the promised land, I realize what the Lord meant when he said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross,” for Moses’ cross everyday was the burden of bearing the people of Israel.

Brothers and sisters, it is not just us, the priests who bear the cross, the burden of the people.

For the apostle told us, “bear one another’s burden’s brethren, and thus shall you fulfill the whole law of Christ.”

We can become people of despair and sadness, broken hearted and fearful. Right now, I have five people I’m praying for who have cancer, four of them in the parish, for their healing and their deliverance from this scourge; I have two people who are undergoing tests for other serious diseases that we’re praying will turn out not to be positive and if they are, that God will either deliver them or mitigate the symptoms. But those people don’t trouble me as much because I understand that death is working in all of us, but that life is also working in us. It’s those in whom I see deadly sins, destructive and corrosive habits, dispositions toward evil, the blinding of the eye of the soul, laxity toward God, a slow devolution of the joy that came with faith. For these people are not physically infirm, but they’re spiritually infirm. All those, including me, everyone here will, unless the lord comes quickly, be placed in the dust of the earth, buried, will die. But we will then pass from this life into the next, into paradise. We will receive the reward of our high calling, we will rise with Jesus in the day of resurrection, and we will share with him, not only in his kingdom, but in his divinity. But those whose souls are stung by the serpent of their own sin, or refuse to look up, whose eyes are averted from the cross upon which the fiery serpent who is the emblem of Christ himself bearing our sins in his own body, on the tree is suspended; those people will pass into the earth and their souls will be turned away eternally from everlasting life.

We pray for as many as have within them a spark of the love of God, a spark of grace, of that old hope, of that old joy, that God will fan it again into a fire of fervent love for him, of faith, of hope, of joy, so that they may be saved. And we pray for our departed loved ones, for those who died in deep and profound faith, and those who died in weak and laxadaysical faith, that God will restore them to grace. That he will pluck them as it were, brands from the fire, and count them also worthy of sharing with us in the kingdom of heaven.

I am not as worried, brothers, about the people who are physically infirm for whom I pray everyday and my heart burns, and I feel grief, and I say, “God deliver them please.”

And sometimes I even am weak enough to say, “God, why is it? Why so many sick people? Why so much suffering?” and then I remember that God didn’t cause it.

It’s the brokenness of this fallen world that our own sins have brought about. Not that any one of us is being punished by his sickness or by her sickness for their sins, but the collective sins of the human race have caused disease and tragedy and natural disaster and the wickedness of men who victimize all of us, and cause Orthodox Russians and orthodox Georgians to shed each others’ blood, to bury each others’ houses and temples, who hate each other, brothers who despise and disdain brothers, and my heart is grieved.

And when I see, as we have seen in the last week, two of our principal hierarchs, men who I had respected and honored, removed from their responsibilities not for what they did, but for what they didn’t do, because they became lax, not because they ate the sheep of Christ, but because they failed to protect the sheep of Christ, and sent home in disgrace to pray for the rest of their lives in repentance for God’s mercy toward them.

And I say of these men who I looked up to, who I honored, who were my examples, who we commemorated with great honor, “If they have fallen so low, what more will become of us?”

But then I recall, it’s not my job. It’s not Hirsch who was lifted up on the cross, it was Christ. And when I take up my cross everyday and follow Him, that He’s carrying the cross, it’s just barely resting on my shoulders. Of that cross that ground his flesh to the ground, he said to me, to you, “My yolk is easy and my burden is light,” because He is carrying it with us. So when we look at the broken world and are disposed to despair, let us remember that there is one hope that makes life even worth pursuing – and it is our sure and certain knowledge that He Who delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, Who brought them through the Red Sea, Who fed them with manna in the desert, Who gave them water from a rock, Who led them as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day, is feeding us as well, nourishing us with His own body and blood, having brought us from the Red Sea in baptism, brought us down to hell and raised us up again, and that He is able to bring to completion that good work that He has begun in us as long as we are one of those whosoever believes IN Him receives salvation through Him.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ!

Glory forever!

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