21 - Zaccheus & Meeting of the LORD, February 2, 2014

I Timothy 4:9-15

Hebrews 7:7-17

Luke 19:1-10

Luke 2:22-40

This morning we celebrate both the Feast of the Meeting of the LORD in the temple, and the Sunday of Zaccheus. The Presentation of Christ in the Temple is the third epiphany of the Winter Pascha that reveals the mystery of Jesus Christ. Christmas revealed Christ as the Virgin-born Son prophesied in Isaiah. Theophany revealed Jesus as the Messianic Son of David, the Son of God and therefore the true King of Israel.

The presentation of Christ in the temple follows the Law of Moses, which commands that the first male child that opens the womb to the LORD is to be presented to the LORD in the temple, with the proper offerings and sacrifices. The meaning of this rite was given in our reading from Exodus last night at holy vigil. It is a sign of the LORD’s deliverance of Israel from their slavery in Egypt and from the oppression of idolatry. This theme of deliverance from idolatry is found in all the OT readings assigned for this Feast.

But, from the “epiphany” of Christmas, it is revealed to us that this male child, Jesus, who is presented to the temple in the Feast this morning, is the only-begotten Son of the Virgin, and He is the only-begotten Son of God the Father who is in Heaven. The revelation of Christ’s heavenly identity tells us that with the presentation of this male child, the Mosaic rite has been transposed to a much higher key, as has also its significance as a sign of the LORD’s deliverance from Israel’s slavery in Egypt and from the oppression of idolatry.

We see that deeper meaning revealed to us in Christ’s Nativity, when the Archangel Gabriel says to the Blessed Virgin, “Of His Kingdom there shall be no end;” (Lk 1:33), and when the Angel says to Joseph, “You shall call His Name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

The sins of Israel are the sins of her idolatry, worshipping gods and goddesses who did not bring her into being. That was the God of Abraham, through whom Abram and Sara, who were as good as dead, says St Paul, because they were advanced in years and past the age of child-bearing, were in effect raised from the dead in the conception and birth of Isaac. The whole nation of Israel, then, descended from Isaac, was raised into being from out of the abyss of death, and existed as a prophetic witness to the resurrection of Christ that was to come, the King of Israel whose Kingdom would have no end.

When Israel followed after the gods and goddesses of her neighbors, then, she forsook her own King, the source of her life and very existence. What was this but to forsake her life and to court death, since the idols she gave herself to, as the prophets warned Israel again and again, were themselves creatures. Only the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was the true God, the God who made heaven and earth, the “God who does wonders!” Idolatry, then, is to give oneself over to death, to become the slave of death and to be oppressed by death.

Here is the deeper meaning to be found in this feast’s significance as a sign of God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery to the Pharaoh of Egypt and from the oppression of idolatry. It is given, in fact, in the writings of the New Testament. (Heb 2:14-15) The slavery from which Israel is to be delivered is the slavery of death; the Pharaoh from whom Israel is to be delivered is the devil, the “spirit of the air” that is active in the “sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:2), whose power over us is proven in how the desires of the flesh hold us in their power and jerk us around like their slaves, their puppets. These desires of the flesh we call “passions”. They include sexual lust, greed and the love of money, anger, gluttony, jealousy, envy, covetousness, pride, self-love. The reward given to those who give themselves over to the idolatry of these passions of idolatry are such feelings as anxiety, fear, depression, despair.

Here, brothers and sisters, is where the message of the OT prophets is as relevant for us today as it was for Israel of old. We must understand that “idolatry” is not simply the worship of graven images as gods. That is idolatry in its primitive form. We today are idolaters in its higher, more sophisticated form. When we give ourselves over to sexual lust, we are worshipping the goddess, Aphordite. When we give ourselves over to greed, we are giving ourselves in worship to the god, Pluto. When we give ourselves to anger, we worship the god, Ares – and so forth and so on. We are no different from ancient Israel. We are sinners because of our idolatry, sophisticated as it is. And so, we too, are dead in our sins and trespasses because we have given our hearts to the gods and goddesses of this world, the “spirits of the air” who are active in the sons and daughters of disobedience even today. The proof that we are idolaters is the oppression we experience from our idolatry: anxiety, fear, irritability, worry, the torment of insatiable desire, depression, self-pity, despair, moodiness.

In this feast of Christ’s Presentation in the temple, as a sign of the LORD’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, and from the oppression of idolatry, it is “shown forth” to us where the mystery of Christ opens far beyond the borders of Israel to include all of us: for, we have all fallen under the power of the devil in the fear of death through our own idolatry, our own choosing to give ourselves to the pleasures of the world, exactly as did Eve in the Garden. We give our minds to the impure thoughts presented to us by the dark spirits who rule the power of the air, we feast our eyes and ears on impure images as though we were eating food offered to idols, our souls to the thrill of perverse pleasures, our mouths to vulgar and crude speech, our hands to ignoble gestures and unclean habits, and our feet we have placed on paths that lead not toward the temple of God, the Church, but to the temples of the world. And what have we received in return for the brief moments of pleasure eating these foods offered to the idols gives us? Is it not the oppression of our soul, which in our blindness, we seek to assuage by going again after the same pleasures that caused our oppression in the first place? Does this not show that we are slaves to the devil who holds us in the power of death through the fear of death?

This morning is the Sunday of Zaccheus, an idolatrous man under the power of the god of greed, because he loved money; in his role as tax collector he defrauded and extorted many to fill his pockets with money. We know in the Church that the Sunday of Zaccheus means that Great Lent is around the corner. This morning’s liturgical conjunction of the Sunday of Zaccheus and the Feast of the LORD’s Presentation in the Temple can show us why the faithful so look forward to Great Lent, even though it is a season of fasting and increased prayer. It’s because the faithful see that they are like Zaccheus, enslaved to the dark spirits of disobedience that rule the air of their souls. The coming of Great Lent means that the Deliverer, Christ the LORD, is coming to our house today as He came to the house of Zaccheus. He is presenting Himself to us as He presented Himself to Simeon the Righteous. He is coming to our house, He is presenting Himself to us as our Deliverer from this miserable slavery of ours to death and from the soul-destroying oppression of our idolatry. The coming of Great Lent is therefore, for the faithful, the coming of joy. Here now is when we take up our cross, in the form of the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, confession of sins, the practice of mercy, striving to follow the commandments of Christ as we set out to deny ourselves – to deny our minds of all impure thoughts, our tongues of all unseemly speech, our souls of all anger against our brother, our hands and feet to all unclean deeds and habits – to lose our lives for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, to die in the likeness of Christ’s death and so die to the death that holds us captive and to the idolatry that oppresses us, so that we can be united to Christ in the likeness of His Resurrection as children of God, a new creation, heirs of His eternal Kingdom.

It is the vision “revealed” to us in this last feast of the LORD’s Winter Pascha that should open our eyes to see the coming season of Great Lent as a season of great joy, and we should begin to get our heart and mind prepared to take up the fast as we would take up our cross to follow Christ into the deliverance of His Holy Resurrection. Amen!