|17 - Sunday After Christmas, Dec 28, 2008|
St Paul wants his readers to understand very clearly that the Gospel he preaches is not man’s but God’s. St Paul himself is not free to change it; for he says, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a different Gospel, let him be accursed.”
The preaching of the Church is the Gospel preached by St Paul. That means it is the Word that is given directly from heaven. It does not belong to us. We cannot change it to make it say what we want it to say. And so we are always its students. Those of us who do teach, do so only because we were appointed to teach by the Church, and even then, we never stop listening and we strive to teach only what we hear as we listen to the Gospel of God that has been written down in the Holy Scriptures and explained by the “holy fathers” of the Faith – those who have rightly divided the Word of Truth in their writings and in their teachings.
The attitude of listening is difficult to sustain for us, however, because we don’t want to hear what the bible is telling us: that we are under judgment because we have gone our own way, and that our way is not the way of God. We want to hear, rather, that God affirms us just as we are and that he makes no demands on us to change. We don’t want to hear that he judges our thoughts and our ways because they are ours and not his.
Tinsel town Christmas likes to gush all sentimental about peace on earth but it doesn’t particularly want to hear about the peace of the Gospel’s Christmas because the Gospel’s Christmas is telling us that what prevents peace on earth isn’t those who don’t share our values, our politics or our philosophy. It’s that none of us wants to listen to the Gospel of God. We want to listen to a god who affirms us and makes no demands on us to change our thoughts and our ways so that they are God’s and not ours. We want a Santa Claus; we don’t want God.
So let’s not listen too closely to this morning’s Gospel. We might begin to hear a word from God that isn’t affirming us but judging us and calling us to change. Because, what are we to make of the fact that the Christ is not safe in the land of Israel, his own chosen people? Joseph has to take the Christ and his Mother and flee into Egypt of all places because Herod, Israel’s ruler, wants to destroy him. Egypt, you’ll remember, is where Israel had been enslaved under bondage to Pharaoh; but now, it is the land of God’s own chosen people, Israel, where God is not safe. Worse, when Herod learns that the Christ, the King of the Jews, has escaped, and sets out to slaughter all the male children two years of age and under, the rulers of Israel show that they have become just like the Pharaoh when the Pharaoh, out of his fear of the Israelites, ordered that all the male children be slaughtered. This is the climax of centuries of the prophetic judgment against Israel because she wouldn’t listen to God, but she would listen to the gods of the other nations. And so, Israel has become just like the pagan nations that do not know God, and when they encounter the Son of God, they seek to destroy him, just as the Egyptians sought to destroy the “sons of God,” the Israelites, centuries ago under Moses.
But if God is safe among the Egyptians it isn’t because the Egyptians have become lovers of God. It’s simply because they don’t know or care who he is. When, in the person of Pilate, they do finally realize that his Word is a threat to theirs because it is altogether different from theirs, then they, too, become active participants in the murder of God.
I fear that a close listening to this morning’s Gospel, a listening that is in the fear of God and with faith and love obligates us to consider the possibility that Herod and the Israelites, who considered themselves God’s chosen people, but who sought to destroy their God when he came to them as a little child, represent us Orthodox Christians. It’s a disturbing message, is it not? We’d like to think that we are God’s favorites, that we have an ‘in’ with God. But the Word of God is warning us that if we feel ourselves getting too cozy with God, that our thoughts are his thoughts and our ways are his ways, we may in fact be listening not to God’s Word but to our own, while God’s Word we are actively seeking to destroy as did Herod, making him unsafe in the “land” of our own soul that belongs to him by virtue of our baptism, because we are not submitting to his command to repent.
The message of the Gospel’s Christmas is addressed to everyone, but perhaps especially to those who think they are somehow God’s chosen people. God affirms none of us. He judges all of us because all of us like sheep have gone astray, writes the prophet Isaiah. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, writes St Paul. We have each and every one sold our birthright to the devil – we have sold the gift of immortality God gave to us in his command to eat from the Tree of Life but not from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and we have eaten from the Tree of Good and Evil and we have not eaten from the Tree of Life. Each and every one of us has become enslaved to love of our own thoughts, our own ways, our own bodies, our own social class, our own way of looking at the world.
But in saying that God affirms none of us but judges all of us, I would have us to understand that God’s judgment is the expression of his love. Because, if we receive his judgment, we discover that his judgment isn’t for the purpose of condemning us but for the purpose of revealing our sickness so that we can present ourselves to him for healing. It’s only when we do not receive his judgment and try to justify ourselves that his judgment becomes our condemnation. When we do receive his judgment, it becomes our salvation because it heals us and cleanses us from our sin.
I’ve said before that the Gospel Christmas announces the coming not of Santa Claus but of God; but the coming of God and not Santa Claus means that what is coming to us is a Word that is not our word but the Word of God; a way that is not our way but the Way of God; a thought, a wisdom, an understanding that is not the thought of our own mind but the Wisdom of the Mind of God. It may be that if we are not at least a little bit troubled by the Christmas story then the Christmas we’re celebrating is not the Christmas of the Gospel but tinsel town Christmas because it affirms us; it doesn’t judge us. And, if it doesn’t judge us, then it doesn’t heal us. It leaves us as we are, in the darkness of death.
St Matthew’s story of Christ fleeing Israel to find safety in the land of Egypt where before Israel had been slaves may be his own way of illustrating the same teaching we find in St John’s Gospel: “He came to his own and his own received him not.” Except his own includes all of us because he created all of us, and we have not received him because we have chosen to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil; we have all spurned the fruit of the Tree of Life. We spurn it every time we chose to follow our own thoughts and our own way and to ignore the thoughts and the ways of God that he has revealed to us in the Gospel of his beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
And so, to receive the Christmas of the Gospel, the Gospel that is of God and not man, the Gospel that St Paul was made to preach like a slave, means that we receive that Word that is not our word but the Word of God; and to receive this Word is to receive not affirmation but judgment. But to receive the judgment of God is ineffably sweet. It reveals the greatness of his mercy, the unutterable depths of his goodness and love for mankind, because to receive his judgment, to confess our sins is to receive cleansing and healing of our sins. It is to find ourselves made whole, able to take up our bed and walk again. And the path we are given to walk is even now being set before us in the liturgical worship of the Church. It is the better and changeless path that is found in the deeps of the Jordan, the waters of Christ’s Holy Baptism, the waters of our Baptism; a path that ascends to God in the light and glory of Christ’s Holy Resurrection.
To celebrate Christmas in the way of the Gospel means to receive the judgment of God against us, and in that judgment to find the healing love of God that makes us to rise from our bed so that we can repent, change, and fall in behind this Christ Child who now rises from the cave and goes forth like a bridegroom in procession leading us to the very Jerusalem that was greatly troubled when it heard of his birth, and whose religious and social rulers sought to kill him. It means to go to Jerusalem with him in order to confront our own greed, our own conceit and arrogance, and to ascend the Cross with him that in him, we might put to death our thoughts and our ways and learn his thoughts and his ways. They are the divine wisdom and way of God’s Holy Spirit that lead to life eternal in the way of the love and humility, the mercy and compassion of God.
Therefore, if we wish to go in spirit to Bethlehem to see the Virgin giving birth to this precious rose in a cave, we must get quite serious about taking up our cross and submitting ourselves like free slaves to this Gospel of the Church that belongs to no man because it is the Word of God, not of man. That means it is a Gospel that is not fantastic that will vanish like smoke in the heat of the hard reality of death, but a Gospel that, because it is directly from God, reveals that better and changeless path that ascends to God and to eternal life in God: the path of healing and wholeness in the judgment and the love of God. Amen.